Photo: casapounditalia.org

CasaPound Italy: The Sui Generis Fascists of the New Millennium

CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups emerged in Europe. Its supporters say they are not ‘racist’ but are against immigration because of its impact on wages and houses; not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the ‘traditional family’. Never before there was in Italy an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying the strategic viability and the marge of political manoeuvre that was secured today by the CasaPound. Although CasaPound remains substantially marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their communication campaigns. 

By Bulent Kenes

The last two decades have seen the rise of populist right-wing extremism characterized by political campaigning targeting immigration, European integration, and globalization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014) and a growth in nationalist, radical populist parties and movements in Western Europe. In the contemporary European Fascist “black galaxy,” Italy has been an important incubator and generator of ideas. Italian post-war Fascism “may be seen as the vanguard of right-wing extremism for roughly 40 years.” (Mammone, 2015: XIV) CasaPound, as Mammone (2015: 213) describes it, is “the most interesting, and atypical in some ways, right-wing enterprise of these recent years” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

The majority of these populist, right-wing extremist organisations have been defined by their opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, the effects of international capitalism on workers’ rights, and their concern for protecting national and European culture. This is combined with “anti-establishment” rhetoric used to appeal to those who are disillusioned with mainstream political parties, the media, and government. As members of an anti-establishment movement, CasaPound supporters have very low levels of trust in the government, the EU, political parties, trade unions and the press (Bartlett et al., 2012). However, according to Bartlett et al. (2012), these organisations do not fit easily into the traditional political divides; one of the most difficult to classify is CasaPound, which was originally founded in Italy in 2003 but was formalised in 2008 under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI) (Jones, 2018). A “populist” rubric is a staple of new-Fascist politics and CasaPound is no exception: theirs is translated through the rhetoric and material enactment of an “exclusionary welfarism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). 

Today, CPI is the most visible neo-fascist organization in Italy—and probably one of the most visible extreme right movements in Western Europe (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). CasaPound’s emphasis on nationalism, its welfare chauvinism that privileges ethnic Italians for the receipt of welfare services, and its direct take-to-the-streets approach have made it a member of the “new right” European street-based movements (Bartlett et al., 2012). CPI has also been central to again normalising fascism in the country of its birth (Jones, 2018). Thanks to CPI, similar extremist organisations and far-right populist parties’ extremist violence, harassment, and xenophobia re-emerged in Italy. Italy’s intelligence services have warned about the growing appeal of radical right groups, especially among young people (Povoledo, 2018).

As with other far-right groups, the economic crisis in Europe in the early 2010s provided CasaPound with fertile ground for spreading its ideas. The crisis allowed the CPI to strengthen its criticisms of international capitalism as well as eurozone fiscal policy. It has also argued against the weakening of the nation state and the increasing power of unelected technocrats (Bartlett et al., 2012). CasaPound was born as a single-issue movement as a result of the social problem associated with the lack of housing spaces for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Since its origins, CasaPound has stood out for its attention to the issue of affordable housing, engaging primarily in struggles on the social and cultural right to adequate shelter for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Ezra Pound.

The group’s name is composed of two elements: i) “Casa,” the Italian Word for “house.” The largest number of eviction orders in 2008 were issued in Rome (7,574), among which almost five thousand were for arrearage. During the following five years, the evictions numbered over 31,000, of which 19,273 were for arrearage. In Rome, the evictions numbered 11,612 (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). ii) “Pound,” referencing the 20th-century American poet Ezra Pound, who supported Mussolini’s dictatorship (Redman, 1991), adhered to the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), and was an antisemite (Kington, 2011; 2012). The organization’s name explicitly connects it with one of the pillars of the group’s ideology, Ezra Pound’s theory of housing rent as “usury” (Pound, 1985), and the poet’s views expressed in his poem Canto XLV opposing rent and rapacious landlords. For the poet, everything that is not used by its owner becomes capital, which is then brought in the market obliging others to pay a monthly tangent: the rent (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). 

Since its birth, CasaPound has conceptually associated its political engagement to Ezra Pound’s conception of “holiness” of the “house.” The groups’ opposition to market capitalism has to do with this, since the house is given a symbolic value that goes beyond its material price (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

The name CasaPound also has a great symbolic meaning, since Ezra Pound was the incarnation of the ideal fascist revolution, meaning the struggle against plutocracy (Redman, 1991; Feldman, 2013). Despite many scholars having demonstrated the influence of the poet’s anti-capitalist and anti-communist discourse on CasaPound (Rinaldi & Feldman, 2015; Lidell, 2012) Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary De Rachewiltz, has repeatedly gone to court to stop CasaPound from using her father’s name (Kington, 2011, 2012). “This organisation is hiding behind Pound’s name for intellectual cover,” De Rachewiltz said and added: “He made mistakes and we have to take the good part of him, just as he did with others. He fell into certain antisemitic clichés that were rampant in Europe and the US at the time.” Pound later told the American poet Allen Ginsberg that his worst mistake in life was his “stupid suburban antisemitic prejudice” (Kington, 2012).

A Brief History

CasaPound was born as a youth organization on December 26, 2003, in Rome, during the occupation of a building in the Esquilino district, a multiethnic neighbourhood populated mostly by Chinese and Bengali people (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). On that night, five men broke into a huge, state-owned, empty office complex. According to the story of the seizure of the building, which is now part of the group’s origin myth (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020), a few days earlier, the men had put up fake fliers, appealing to the public for help to find a lost black cat called “Ezra.” It was a way to avoid suspicion as they surveyed the building before breaking in. Nothing was left to chance: the date, between Christmas and New Year, was chosen because there wouldn’t be many people around. Even the name and colour of the cat wasn’t casual: “Ezra” was a nod to the American poet; black was the colour associated with their hero, Benito Mussolini (Jones, 2018). While the details may differ, the repetition of this narrative very usefully serves the purpose of mythmaking. Multiplied by the attention of media, CasaPound has been able to frame a Fascist archetype, creating an at once folkloric and banal construction of “the neo-Fascist” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). 

CasaPound was founded as a branch of the Fiamma Tricolore (FT) party of Pino Rauti, making specific reference to the history of the post-war neo-fascist party Movimento sociale italiano (MSI, Italian Social Movement, which was founded on December 26, 1946) and Mussolini’s legacy. The occupation on the same day was not accidental, since it furnished an explicit initial link between the CasaPound movement and the fascist era and its legacy (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Gianluca Iannone.

The man giving orders that night was Gianluca Iannone (1974-), who came from a more “old style” Fascist activism (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). Then 30, Iannone had “me ne frego” (“I don’t care” – the slogan used by Mussolini’s troops) tattooed diagonally across the left side of his neck (Jones, 2018). At the beginning of the third millennium, Iannone already had an interesting career behind him as member of a minor extremist extra-parliamentary right-wing group which was dissolved by law in the 1990s for hate-speech and racism. In 1995, he had been one of the founders of the Rupe Tarpea Produzioni, an independent record company that produced, and still produces, Nazi rock groups such as Hobbit, Intolerance, etc (Jones, 2018). 

In 1997, Iannone founded the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which gave voice to concerns that had been disregarded by established parties of the radical right: housing, globalization, and the need to revolt against the establishment (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). ZZA became an evangelising force for fascism. Touring all over Italy, the band sang raucous punk-rock songs with lyrics such as, “I love this proud people / that doesn’t know peace.” However, the song that became a crowd favourite was Cinghiamattanza, meaning “death by belt”: at all the gigs, it became a ritual for fans to take off their belts and lash each other (Jones, 2018).

Iannone was also one of the leaders of the Romanist hooligans, the animator of the fascist pub Cutty Sark which was a meeting point for Rome’s extreme right, and the owner of the “non-conventional” bookshop Testa di Ferro in Rome, which disseminated nostalgic fascist literature. Armed with charisma and a strong reputation, Iannone became the leader of the “right-wing” house occupations in Rome (Wolff, 2019; Jones, 2018).

The men gathered together and hugged, feeling that they had planted a flag in the centre of the Italian capital—in a gritty neighbourhood which was home to many African and Asian immigrants. Iannone dubbed their building “the Italian embassy.” The building became the headquarters of the movement called CasaPound (Jones, 2018). In this building, which is still occupied by activists, there are three apartments per floor that host the activists and 23 families. The police did not intervene at the time of the occupation, nor did they act in the following months or years. Successive mayors of Rome have treated the fascist occupation with a degree of tolerance (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Actually, it was not the first building that was occupied by the group. In 2002, CasaPound occupied a state-owned building in Rome and established the so-called “Casa Montag.” The name came from Guy Montag, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Indeed, Bradbury’s critique of a totalitarian state was transformed into Casa Pound’s intolerance against anti-fascism in Italian politics. CasaMontag became the first example of right-wing Occupazioni Non Conformi (ONC, or Non-Conventional Occupation), which aimed to use musical events to get young people to discuss politics in a non-structured way (Wolff, 2019). 

CasaPound Has Already Fulfilled Its Mission by Normalising Fascism

Initially, Casa Montag did not have a real political and communitarian aim but was a centre for people to meet, socialise, play music, and discuss political and social issues. The squatting inside Casa Montag and subsequent building occupations had the primary goal of housing Italian families that lost their houses and protesting against the rising rents in Rome and related real estate speculations: the group’s slogan was “rent is usury: stop the increasing costs of living” (Bartlett et al., 2012). Iannone has called usury “the worst thing… the head of the octopus… which creates unemployment, debt and threatens the future of our children” (Lidell, 2012). CasaPound argues for a form of “social mortgage” (mutuo sociale)—a housing policy that would guarantee all Italian workers the right to own a property; the right of home ownership is crucial to the movement’s message (Bartlett et al., 2012).  

Only one year later, in 2003, Iannone led the expedition that occupied the building in via Napoleone: CasaPound. That squat occurred under the slogan “Occupazioni a Scopo Abitativo” (OSA: Occupations for Housing Purposes). Several others followed. Many make a clear distinction between ONC and OSA, arguing that the former has a metapolitical nature while the latter has a social purpose (Wolff, 2019). The concern for housing is the core of CasaPound’s ideology and policy and is reflected in the group’s name as well as its use of the turtle as its main logo: “The turtle is one of the few living beings which is fortunate enough to have with them the house” (Bartlett et al., 2012). The stylized turtle symbol also refers to the Roman formation called Testudo, the army of Rome that showed the greatness and force of the Empire and which emerged “from a vertical order and from a hierarchical principle.” Contextually, the octagonal shape is reminiscent of the historical monument Castel del Monte, built by the “last Cesare” in Italy. The arrow is the same as that in the flags of other far-right movements across Europe (Wolff, 2019). 

From 2006–2008, Iannone was active as leader of a youth group in the FT trying to conquer the party’s leadership—without success (Wolff, 2019). In 2008, CasaPound, whose activists define themselves as “third millennium fascists”(Gretel Cammelli, 2018; Bulli, 2019), broke off from the FT to become an officially registered association with offices in all major Italian cities under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI). As a legally recognized association, CasaPound was eligible to receive voluntary pre-tax donations (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CPI openly rejects left-wing and right-wing labels, and distances itself from traditional parties and has instead rooted itself in the tradition of Italian Fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

Starting from 2011, however, CPI regularly took part in local and national elections, and progressively expanded its programmatic agenda on socioeconomic affairs. At first, its candidates ran as independents within centre-right coalitions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2013, it developed a new strategy as an independent political party and participated in local elections in February (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CPI’s evolution is also reflected in changing electoral slogans between 2013 and 2018: from “Direction Revolution” to “Direction Parliament” (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).

Matteo Salvini, Head of the Lega Nord (Northern League) party and former Interior Minister. Photo: Pierre Teyssot.

While the results at the national level have been poor (0.14 percent in 2013), CPI won 0.69 percent of votes in Lazio, comprising 8,734 votes in the city of Rome. In 2014, it struck up informal relations with the Lega Nord (LN) and contributed to the election of an LN candidate to the European Parliament (EP). In 2015, a new political formation called Sovranità established an alliance between the two parties supporting the LN’s leader Matteo Salvini and secured the election of its own officials to local councils. In 2016, CasaPound participated in the elections as an independent party, winning 1.14 percent of the vote in Rome, equivalent to around 14,000 votes. In the 2017 local elections, CPI scored results above five percent and elected council members in different municipalities within Central Italy. Moreover, a former member has been elected mayor of L’Aquila as part of a right-wing list (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018; Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Italy’s political panorama is defined not just by radical right-wing parties, which received considerable support by voters during elections in March 2018, but also by the presence of extra-parliamentary organizations that increasingly engage in the public debate by presenting radical arguments and propositions. One of these is CasaPound Italia (Wolff, 2019). CPI ran with an independent list in the local and national elections. On this occasion, CPI failed to elect any candidates to parliament (winning a meager 0.9 percent of votes), yet doubled its electoral support compared to the previous national elections—from 50,000 to about 130,000 votes (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018; Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The results of the 2018 elections were a shock to the Italian political establishment, delivering a historical blow to the parties of the centre-left; the feared entry of the neo-Fascists into Parliament did not materialize, however (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

Nevertheless, CasaPound has already fulfilled its mission by normalising fascism in Italy. At the end of 2017, Il Temponewspaper announced Benito Mussolini as its “person of the year.” It wasn’t being facetious: Il Duce barged into the news agenda every week of the year. Even a left-wing politician in Florence said that “nobody in this country has done more than Mussolini.” More than 75 years after his death, he is more admired than traditional Italian heroes such as Giuseppes Garibaldi and Mazzini. Moreover, in just 15 years, CasaPound has grown so large that its initial ambition—to be accepted into the theatre of “open debate”—is now obsolete. Instead, its leaders now talk of eradicating anti-fascism entirely. Fascism, Iannone enthuses, was “the greatest revolution in the world, the completion of the Risorgimento [Italian unification].” Mussolini’s regime was “the most beautiful moment of this nation” (Jones, 2018).

Meanwhile, an Italian judge ordered police on June 4, 2020, to seize CasaPound’s headquarters in a move hailed as a victory by the city’s mayor Virgina Raggi from the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement (M5S). The order to seize the building, issued on the 76th anniversary of Rome’s liberation from Nazi occupation by US troops in World War Two, has not yet been carried out (Reuters, 2020), because the government has temporarily halted evictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (Roberts, 2020).

“Hybridization” As an Ideological Choice and Recruitment Strategy

At the beginning of the 1990s, a new phase in the Italian party system was ushered in with the inclusion of a post-Fascist party, Alleanza Nazionale (AN, National Alliance), in centre-right coalitions. This normalization at the party level did not occur in the same way at the subcultural or grassroots level (Bulli, 2019). Though “apologizing for fascism” was still a crime in Italy (Wolff, 2019), for Italy’s modern neo-fascist groups like CasaPound, Il Duce was—and is—very much about ideology. According to CPI’s vice-president, Simone di Stefano, CPI’s youngsters already see Mussolini as the country’s father (Kington, 2013). In addition, the rise of populism, and CPI’s explicit rejection of traditional right and left categories, has changed the landscape of party politics and affected political movements, especially those of the far right. During this period, a symbolic hybridization between the far-right and the far-left (Miller-Idriss, 2018) and nostalgia defined CPI’s recruitment strategy (Bulli, 2019).

This hybridization manifests itself even in the entrance hall of CPI’s headquarters. CasaPounders painted a hundred or so men’s names, suggesting their ideological lineage. Many were obvious—Mussolini, Oswald Mosley, Nietzsche, war criminals like Hamsun, Degrelle, the writer and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian fascist philosopher Julius Evola—but many more were bizarre or delusional: Homer, Plato, Dante, Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, as well as Ahmed Shah Massoud (the Afghan jihadi leader), and even cartoon characters such as Captain Harlock and Corto Maltese. “Delusional” because most of these characters are more frequently seen as representing liberal and progressive values, and “bizarre” because CasaPound mobilizes the “other” as representative of Fascist thought (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020; Jones, 2018).

Drawing on populism, expressionism, and pluralism, as a fascists movement CPI creates political orientations that defy easy placement along a right-left axis (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). By adopting symbols, dress codes, and participation models typical of the extreme left, CPI shows its indifference to the codification of rituals according to a left–right understanding of politics. From this perspective, the group tries to differentiate itself from the “neither right nor left” rhetoric of the New Right and from the “aesthetics of the ‘Third Way’ of Italian Fascism” (Ben-Ghiat, 1996). Despite CPI being commonly placed in the category of the Italian radical right, at the rhetorical level the group asserts differences from traditional radical-right parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

However, all the elements that make up the multifaceted cultural imaginary of CasaPound originate from the ideology of Fascism, including its cultural manifestations, its exaltation of the masculine body, virility, and speed of action, and its concept of “lifestyle” (Bulli, 2019). In this context, CPI refers mostly to the social and labour legislation during the Fascist regime: the Labour Charter from 1927, the Verona Manifesto from 1943, and in general all documents that testify to the fascists’ engagement in social policy, corporatism, and socialization (Wolff, 2019). The party strategically downplays the most stigmatized aspects of Fascism, such as antisemitism and racism (Castelli Gattinara et al. 2013; Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

CasaPound accepted that the racial laws of 1938, which introduced antisemitism and deportation, were “errors.” The movement claimed to be “opposed to any form of discrimination based on racial or religious criteria, or on sexual inclination” (Jones, 2018). Despite its realignment with the xenophobic, law-and-order and nationalist agendas of most radical-right populist parties since 2014, CPI tends to distinguish itself from Italian parties of the extreme right by underlining its anti-establishment character (Gattinara, Froio, & Albanese, 2013) in an effort to create a political traditionalism that coexists with an open challenge to all forms of pre-defined belonging (Bulli, 2019). Even if CPI claims its origins in Italian Fascism, it builds its political message on the framework of “metapolitics”—a Gramscian approach to politics, in which cultural change and hegemony precedes political change (Wolff, 2019). Namely, unlike other radical-right organizations in Western Europe, the bulk of CasaPound’s policy positions, ideas, and practices revolve around economic and social areas (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013) and are directly inspired by the leftist current that has always existed in Italian Fascism and neo-fascism. In particular, three major concepts that connect CasaPound to three different tendencies of neo-fascism should be highlighted: the Destra Sociale (Social Right), the spiritualism of Ordine Nuovo (New Order), and the tradition of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right(Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013),

The Destra Sociale was a group internal to the MSI and connected directly with the experience of the Italian Social Republic. Partisans of this political trend stressed the “socialist” aspects of the fascist doctrine, clamouring for a strong state able to take care of its citizens from the cradle to the grave. Similarly, CasaPound calls for a stronger state to protect citizens from the “dictatorship” of the banks and the international financial system (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).CasaPound also takes direct inspiration from Italian Fascism in its restless fight against international capitalism. The reference here is to Mussolini’s attacks against the international plutocracies which were held responsible for the destruction of national economies (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). CPI has also opposed Italy’s austerity programme, most notably in the campaign “Ferma Equitalia” (“Stop Equitalia”). Equitalia is the public company in charge of the collection of taxes and the Italian symbol of the austerity movement. Since the beginning of 2012, different bases of Equitalia have been the target of several bomb attacks (Bartlett et al., 2012). 

Among the 18 points of CPI’s political programme, the first calls for the “public control of banks.” The nationalism and autarchy of CPI is characterized by an aversion to all multinational corporations and European institutions (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The state is also supposed to be “ethical, organic and inclusive” and “something spiritual and moral” aimed at ensuring that the nation remains independent of private and international interests. Society was seen as an “organism” in which individuals were merely tools for pursuing the interests of society as a whole (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Ordine Nuovo was founded in 1956 by Pino Rauti and other militants of the MSI. They disagreed with the party on a number of grounds, including the recognition of NATO. The group developed a strong cultural commitment but also a sense of militancy where particular importance was given to violent actions against opponents. Numbers of its militants have been accused of terrorist activities (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Finally, CasaPound inspires parts of its ideology from the experience and practice of the Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist. 

Together with the Nuova Destra, these were among the most interesting political experiments of the 1970s. Following the protest movements begun in May 1968 in Paris, intellectuals tried to renovate the right wing, emphasizing or adding issues such as federalism and ecology, but also an ethnic-identarian vision, communitarism, anti-imperialism and Europeanism (Mammone, 2008).  

In line with the aforementioned ideological debate, CPI’s self-styled revolutionary fascist members have declared themselves to be “the fascists of the new millennium” (Wolff, 2019). The group has voluntarily embraced this label as effectively portraying the mixture of Fascist traditionalism with the promise of the future and a contemporary ethos. As Mammone (2009: 187) observes, CPI exemplifies “a modern blackshirt Janus with one face looking backward and the other forward towards the future.” The label also emphasizes the adaptation of a classic extreme-right movement to a fast-changing environment in which language, communication, and behaviour play a role comparable to values and ideology, thus creating a cultural imaginary suitable for the political mobilization of new members (Forchtner & Kølvraa, 2017).

“Fascism à la Carte”

The CPI’s success at recruiting new members derives from: i) Its variable approach to a new form of political identification. This consists of both a “strong” approach, allowing for a conceivable return to codified traditions and symbols of Fascism, and a “soft” attitude towards the strategic selection of symbols, metaphors, topoi, and fallacies from a wide repertoire (Reisigl, 2008). ii) Its professionalized use of political language to encourage both the embrace and rejection of an ideological understanding of politics. iii) Its mixed use of symbols and the connected cultural imaginary (Bulli, 2019).

CPI’s ideology has been described as “fascism à la carte” or “à la carte Fascism” (Albanese et al., 2014), indicating the movement’s adoption of only certain elements of Fascist ideology and making use of them to recruit members. CPI selects those elements of the Fascist tradition it finds useful for the clear definition of its own political raison d’être in ideological and social terms. However, quite often CPI ends up taking contradictory positions in order to accommodate the needs of different audiences. “Fascism” remains the backbone by which the group substantiates its criticism of supranational institutions, globalization, and the establishment; yet, CasaPound approaches it by making a strategic mix of different elements depending on the issues that are debated, selectively emphasizing some relevant aspects, and omitting others (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Meanwhile, contextualizing its increasing popularity following the 2008 financial crisis, CPI’s position has been outlined as the typical third-wayism: “The refusal of neoliberal economic theories and the neo-nationalist defence of workers’ rights.” However, less attention has been paid to CPI’s Euroscepticism, anti-globalism/mondialism, anti-Zionism, and racism. These have manifested as cultural racism; nationalism based on identarian discourse (ethno-nationalism); “welfare chauvinism;” exclusionary nationalism,; rejecting a multi-racial society; the defence of ethnic identities; opposition to immigration; a desire to exit from NATO and to remove Italy from the US sphere of influence; a quest to nationalize strategic economic sectors; and a fight against “usury” and for the cancellation of public debt (Wolff, 2019).

CPI’s political discourse reproduces the nationalist and anti-imperialist features of Italian Fascism. In this sense, the financial crisis directly originates from the contradictions of capitalism and its “wild” economic regime, which CasaPound would instead control by means of a strong state capable of avoiding the inequalities of the market economy. The strong state would also regain the national sovereignty that has been given up in favour of transnational organizations, in particular the EU, the IMF, and the ECB (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).

Despite these stances, the group is keen to use symbols and practices that are generally considered distant from the culture of the extreme right culture. This appropriation is also applied to figures and practices traditionally associated with left-wing culture (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

The ideological pillars of CasaPound’s view of the economy are also reminiscent of the Weimar’s campaigns of economic supremacy and Italian ambitions for food production self-sufficiency in the 1930s. Economic self-sufficiency is a way to reconnect with nature, and this bucolic image of naturalism is not new to radical-right organizations. In this sense, CPI builds a discourse around natural order which affects the environment but also the economy and society at large: a societal ecology (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Thus, CPI emphasizes its organic understanding of national identity and state sovereignty and legitimacy, conceived as natural expressions of the Italian nation: “The Italian nation needs to become once again a national organism with powerful and long-lasting life, aims and means of action, which are well above those of its single or grouped individuals” (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

The CPI, which adopts “welfare chauvinism” and “welfare populism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020), also uses the concept of ethnopluralism to attain ideological coherence. Ethnopluralism offers a consistent framing of core themes—like social welfare and globalization—as well as issues considered of secondary importance, like gender and the environment. Hybridization thus allows CPI to emphasize its ideological roots in the tradition of the extreme right, while avoiding stigmatization as being outdated or openly racist (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). Unlike other far-right movements and parties in Europe for which immigration is the key issue, CasaPound’s policy positions cover a range of economic and social areas (Bartlett et al., 2012).

Election posters on billboard ahead of Italian General Election on March 4, 2018. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

A Political Party That Functions to Trivialize Concerns About Fascism 

The social movement rhetoric and engagement in disruptive forms of protest did not prevent CasaPound engaging in institutional politics. Starting with the 2011 elections, CasaPound presented their candidates in local elections in civic lists or on the centre-right and succeeded in electing its representatives (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). The CPI leadership also announced in October 2012 that it would participate in the local elections in Rome and Lazio, and subsequently in the national elections with an autonomous list of candidates. This came as a surprise to many observers who had underlined the non-electoral nature of CasaPound’s activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Since 2013, CPI has regularly taken part in elections with its own electoral lists (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, the choice did not prove particularly successful in the first elections, when CPI won only 0.14 percent of the vote for the Italian House and Senate, and less than one percent in the municipal and regional elections in Rome. However, the success of extreme right actors is not exclusively related to their immediate results. According to the “contagion effect” literature, contemporary extreme right activism strives for the radicalization of mainstream values and political agendas more than for an immediate transformation of the status quo (Lubbers, 2001; Minkenberg, 2001).

CasaPound’s electoral participation contributed to further increasing the visibility of the group as well as its reputation as the main non-partisan actor mobilizing on the issue of national sovereignty, as well as its opposition to austerity and the EU. As a consequence, the subsequent months saw an unprecedented electoral alliance between CasaPound and the regionalist populist party Lega Nord (Albertazzi & McDonnell 2005). This unofficial electoral cartel was first tested in European Parliament (EP) elections in May 2014, when CasaPound explicitly supported one of Lega’s candidates (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015)

In November 2018, the election in the Roman suburb of Ostia was considered by the Italian media as “a test” for the affirmation of CPI in Italian political life. CPI got 9 percent of the votes and obtained one seat in the local municipal council (Torrisi, 2018). In the March 2018 national elections, the CPI obtained 0.94 percent of the vote (310,793 votes) but it couldn’t enter parliament. CPI’s electoral support of the euro-sceptical and xenophobic Lega under the leadership of Matteo Salvini in 2018 influenced public discourse to such a degree that its slogan “Prima gli italiani!” (Italians first!) became the slogan for Salvini’s party (Wolff, 2019).

In order to participate in the 2019 EP election, an electoral list was formed by CasaPound and United Right. CasaPound leader Simone Di Stefano topped the list; however, the coalition was unable to win any seats in the EP. 

CPI has never won a seat in the national parliament or the EP, but the group has successfully made extreme-right themes more routine in the public sphere, trivializing concerns about historical fascism and racial discrimination (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Nevertheless, on June 26, 2019, CasaPound’s leader Iannone announced CasaPound was no longer a political party; instead, the group would return back its original status as a social movement. 

A Hierarchic and Meritocratic Organisation

Although the Italian Constitution bans “the reorganization in any form of the dissolved Fascist Party,” CasaPound, like other neo-fascist movements, has skirted the law by identifying as the descendants of Mussolini (Horowitz, 2017). In terms of its organisational structure, CasaPound opted for a strategy of differentiation in order to carve out a space for itself within the extreme right milieu. In this sense, the main goal of CasaPound has not been the development of a concrete organizational alternative for extreme-right activism, but rather the promotion of a claim of generic “otherness” from all existing political organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

The organization of CasaPound is hierarchic and meritocratic. Those who work the most, who are most capable to commit, are recognized as leaders—and followed. The leadership is officially embodied by Iannone, who is a widely recognized figure in the subcultural milieu of the Italian extreme right. His involvement in the everyday politics of CPI has, however, decreased over time; most of the ordinary business is delegated to the vice-president, who acts as spokesperson and runs as candidate in national and local elections (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). On November 13, 2017, Simone Di Stefano was elected secretary and nominal prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 general election.

The internal structure, decision-making, and recruitment does not fully conform to either the model usually followed by electoral actors or that of grassroots organizations. Rather, it combines formal and informal features, hierarchical procedures, and spaces of socialization, merging the organizational practices of social movements with those of formal political parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). All strategies and policy proposals are decided upon by the inner leadership in Rome and communicated to members, militants, and local branches. Decentralized grassroots initiatives are also possible and welcome but have to be ratified by the offices in Rome. Political activities are further differentiated through separate organizations with thematic responsibilities. There are groups in charge of social voluntary work (e.g., health, workers’ rights, the environment), ideology and propaganda (including a daily paper, web radio, and web TV), and specific campaigns (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).  The leader creates or displaces social movement practices and accompanies virtually all actions that can be associated with CasaPound. In addition, personalization takes place through the systematic exhibition of symbols that can be immediately associated with the group (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

CPI has its headquarters in Rome and branches in other northern and southern cities (Bulli, 2019). The building, which sits incongruously in the heart of an immigrant neighbourhood, has served as CasaPound’s home since it was occupied (Horowitz, 2017). In 2006, the movement that arose around the first community centre gained with its student organization, the “Students’ Block” (“Blocco Studentesco”). Blocco Studentesco is a mainstay in Rome youth politics, winning 11,000 votes in school council elections in 2009 (Kington, 2013). A fascist women’s movement, Tempo di Essere Madri (“time to be a mother”), was founded by Iannone’s wife. A pseudo-environmental group, La Foresta Che Avanza, began to put “the regime into nature” (Jones, 2018). Among the many groups directly linked to CPI is the “Circolo Futurista” (“Futurist Circle”), an association devoted to the organization of cultural events (Bulli, 2019).

As of December 2017, CPI had 106 headquarters/local offices across Italy (Wolff, 2019) and Iannone described each new centre as a “territorial reconquest.” Because every centre was self-financing, and because they claimed to “serve the people,” those new centres in turn opened gyms, pubs, bookshops, parachute clubs, diving clubs, motorbike clubs, football teams, restaurants, nightclubs, tattoo parlours, and barbershops. CasaPound suddenly seemed everywhere, echoing the influential fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who wrote in 1925 that fascism was “before all else a total conception of life” (Jones, 2018). Today, CasaPound is present in virtually all Italian regions. It owns fifteen bookshops, twenty pubs, a web radio station (Black Flag Radio) and a web TV channel (TortugaTV). CasaPound also produces publications such as the monthly journal L’Occidentale and the quarterly Fare Quadrato (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).  

Members: Fascists of the Third Millennium

CPI has made enormous improvements in terms of recruitment during the last years (Wolff, 2019). CPI members, who define themselves as “Fascists of the Third Millennium” (Bulli, 2019)complete with black boots, tattooed necks, and shorn hair—guard floors decorated with pictures of Fascist-era marches and banners reading “Arm Your Soul.” The members exhibit fondness for Roman salutes and mythic glory days (Horowitz, 2017). Members are referred to as a “camerata” (the fascist version of “comrade”) and exchange the old-fashioned “legionary” handshake, grasping each other’s forearm rather than the hand (Jones, 2018). Members of CPI’s grassroots associations do not always declare their political allegiance, thus facilitating the recruitment of new members. Often, in fact, their first contact with the movement is not an ideological one (Bulli, 2019).

It is important to underline that CPI does not envisage membership without active militancy; becoming a member entails active participation in the events and activities promoted by the group. The selection of members follows very strict, yet informal, criteria, and generally occurs by co-optation. After being introduced to the group by other militants, prospective members are invited to public events and activities organized by CPI, “as a way to test their motivation, before introducing them to the circuit of real militancy.” Sympathizers unable to become active militants can be appointed as “web supporters” in charge of promoting CPI’s messages, images, and activities online. CPI does not have staff or employees on its payroll, and elected officials are required to devote most of their emoluments to the organization (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).

Although membership in CPI is considered on the rise, it is difficult to rely on declared figures. While the founding group included a few dozen individuals, data from CPI’s official website claimed over 2,000 members in 2008 (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2011, it was estimated that CPI had 5,000 members, while in 2017, the group reached 6,000. As of January 2018, the Facebook account CasaPound Italia had 230,000 followers (Wolff, 2019). CasaPound Facebook supporters were slightly more likely to be unemployed than the average Italian citizen (11 percent vs 7.9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012).  

CPI’s Women: Deconstructing the Theory of Fascist Misogyny

The common assumption that fascism is a misogynist ideology which has tended to exclude women, has been contrasted with cases of women’s active participation in fascist politics in France, Germany, Italy, and the UK (Durham, 1998).Women “shockingly” participating in far-right politics has received much media attention despite fascist movements being known for stressing women’s responsibilities at home. Conservative ideals of good fascist mothers and wives have also been prominent in CPI’s propaganda (Provost & Whyte, 2018). According to Gretel Cammelli, “since the foundation of CasaPound, women’s presence was overexposed, but in reality, there was a small number of them.” Cammelli observed that back in 2010, in CPI “women’s roles were extremely marginal, they were basically absent from all the high hierarchies,” and that the movement is very “macho.” The researcher recalls that she went to a CPI event in 2010 and “the number of women was quite embarrassing: they were about 20 out of 500 people. Almost all of them were in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches for the men” (Torrisi, 2018).

All of this makes the movement edgy and decidedly masculine—87 percent of the CPI’s Facebook supporters are male (Jones, 2018; Bartlett et al., 2012). According to the CPI’s ideology, today as in the fascist era, the role of women is to procreate for the wealth and prosperity of the Italian nation. Women have a duty to ensure that the history of Italy is kept alive into the future, and CasaPound perpetuates a normative vision of female gendered identity (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Caterina Froio notes that the far right has struggled with the so-called “gender gap” among members, voters, and political personnel because women represent a large potential reservoir of support electorally for the far right (Torrisi, 2018).

In 2017, CasaPound expressed support for same-sex marriage and supported abortion rights. Even if it is not officially homophobic, CasaPound believes in the “traditional family” as the basic unit of the nation. One example of this was the “Tempo di essere madri” (“It’s time to be mothers”) campaign, which advocated lowering the amount of working hours for mothers without affecting their pay (Bartlett et al., 2012).

In November 2017, the Italian edition of the women’s magazine Marie Claire published an article entitled “Do you know who CasaPound’s women are?” It profiled female militants of CPI, giving readers a glimpse into their private lives, sharing fashion tips, what they like to wear, and how they juggle their family and social lives with the demands of being part of a violently fascist movement (Torrisi, 2018). Like Marie Claire, the Italian media in general have helped CasaPound to “glamourise” fascism. Torrisi shows how media coverage focused on the movement’s female members has fawned over their beauty and their dedication to their children and husbands, while glossing over the violence and danger of this increasingly visible fascist group (Provost & Whyte, 2018). For instance, Italian media christened local spokeswoman Carlotta Chiaraluce in Ostia “Lady CasaPound” and called her a “beautiful, fascist… vote-catcher” and the “queen of the far-right movement.” Interviewed by one right-wing newspaper, Chiaraluce said that there are a lot of women in the movement, and they are all happy with what they are doing. She said: “Even if there is not a lot of media attention on this aspect, we are deconstructing the theory of the misogyny of fascists” (Torrisi, 2018).

Hybrid Ideology Facilitates Diversified Activities

CPI emphasises direct activism, and its strategy is based on the synergic union of ideas and actions. In CPI’s view, ideas cannot be separated from political participation (Bulli, 2019) and it has successfully managed to construct its own self-styled activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Thus, CPI enjoys important visibility in Italy and in the European extreme-right subcultural milieu despite its limited number of supporters (Bartlett et al., 2012).

Until the late 2000s, CasaPound was mainly engaged in expressive activities aimed at developing its network of associations. It was also protagonist of a series of demonstrations, which included the occupation of a state-owned building in Rome in 2002 (CasaMontag) and developing a number of “non-conventional” squats, the attack against the emission “Big Brother,” and numerous violent riots involving Blocco Stundentesco (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Meanwhile, CPI’s political campaigns have aimed to implement laws, promote referenda, and directly influence the national political debate over different topics related to housing, Italian workers, the public austerity programme, and the importance of the traditional family (Bartlett et al., 2012). In its early years, it stood out for its unconventional actions, most notably highly demonstrative protests, occupations of state-owned buildings for housing purposes, and squatting for political and cultural activities. Even during electoral campaigns, CPI combined conventional party activities such as handing out leaflets, collecting signatures, and promoting fundraising events with contentious politics, including the storming of rival candidates’ offices, clashes with anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations, and direct actions and interventions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). 

As mentioned previously, CPI builds its political narrative upon the framework of the “metapolitics”: a counter-cultural power for which cultural change is expected to precede political change. This is also confirmed by the groups’ preferred modes of activism; it engages in a number of different arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). The hybrid nature of CPI has shaped its actions, which consists of both unconventional and conventional activities (Bulli, 2019).

From its very beginnings, CPI insisted on the creation of an image that diverged from the institutional character of the Italian far right of the late 1990s (Bulli, 2019). It has adapted a “new political style.” Instead of parades, memorial rituals, or celebrations, they organize rock concerts where people can meet up and “community” can form and, through chorus and dance, celebrate itself. Music has especially played a crucial role in this strategy. Producing music and live performances has been seen as one of the principal ways of creating the desired distinction between the traditional far right and the new model proposed by CPI (Bulli, 2019).  

The emblem of ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA).

This is possible thanks to CPI’s leader Gianluca Iannone, who is also the front man of the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which lies at the origins of the entire movement. Iannone is an actor capable of updating the new political style, making the CasaPound community feel a desire to take part in the leader’s power. When Iannone sings and stands at the centre of the stage, everyone flocks to be near him. As one activist stated, ZZA is not a single artist; rather, “if you listen to Zeta Zero Alfa, you understand that they are like the tip of the iceberg, that there is a whole community behind them.” ZZA’s concerts are an important tool for communication. One of ZZA’s most well-known songs is called “Cinghiamattanza.” When “Cinghiamattanza” is performed, the activists take off their belts and begin to beat each other with them, often until bleeding, as the lyrics themselves encourage them to do (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CasaPound defines “cinghiamattanza” or “massacre belt” as a “sport” (Lidell, 2012).

Another distinguishing feature of CasaPound is its explicit emphasis on physical activity and confrontation. The function and importance of sports and physical confrontation is more broadly conceived as a “cult of the body.” CasaPound offers a range of sporting activities to its core members and sympathisers, including trekking, speleology, rugby, combat sports and martial arts, karate, boxing, wrestling, parachuting, water polo, diving, horse-riding, motor-riding, and hockey (Kington, 2011a). These activities allow those who practise them to show courage and masculinity. CPI is also engaged with a number of youth clubs dedicated to sports, as well as with art galleries and theatre schools. Similarly, sports and leisure activities play a fundamental role in developing a sense of shared community (Bulli, 2019; Wolff, 2019).

Since camaraderie is represented as the highest form of political and social commitment for its members, CPI adopts a particular style of communication intended to present the group as a valid alternative to the traditional politics (Bulli, 2019). Thus, CPI organizes solidarity actions so as to reinforce its close connection to the social legislation of the Fascist regime. CPI’s grassroots associations play a crucial role in these activities, in which there is direct contact with those being helped and CPI promotes a series of “para-welfare activities” addressed to Italian families facing difficult times (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). Unlike conventional forms of activism, they do not seek the mediation of representative authorities to solve public problems, but seek to directly redress a problem (Bosi & Zamponi, 2015: 371). These actions were at the core of campaigns on housing rights and extended to other issues over time. CPI then mobilized on environmental requalification and voluntary work to help disabled, unemployed, and elderly people (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). CPI’s engagement in society covers a wide range of different activities, from house-occupation and street protest to social welfare and housing programmes, from vigilante excursions against illegal migrants in the peripheries of Italian cities or against illegal street sellers on Italian beaches to pro-bono health and legal counselling, first aid teams, fundraising activities for foreign populations, and aid to orphans and single-mothers (Wolff, 2019).

CasaPound has especially used food drives to bolster its bonafides in the community and to point to the absence of the Italian state. Photo: http://www.casapounditalia.org

 

CasaPound has especially used food drives to bolster its bonafides in the community and to point to the absence of the Italian state “that should take care of its own before it takes care of others.” Through such actions, CasaPound spectacularizes Italy’s social precarity, while less-than-obliquely hinting at a logic of crisis induced by the non-Italian “other” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). CPI has especially worked for the working class and peasantry and set up its own workers’ union. In 2006, CPI members hung 400 mannequins all over Rome protesting the city’s housing crisis; and in 2012, they occupied the EU’s office in Rome and dumped sacks of coal outside to protest on behalf of Italian miners (Jones, 2018).

As mentioned above, CasaPound combines traditional right- and left-wing concerns, approaches, and symbols. For example, despite an open devotion to Mussolini, it regularly organises events to celebrate famous left-wingers such as Che Guevara or Peppino Impastato (a militant communist who died fighting against the mafia in Sicily). These ambiguities are also reflected in the group’s culture and music: its official radio station, Radio Bandiera Nera, broadcasts traditional right-wing music as well as the anarchist songs of Fabrizio De Andrè. The images used by the group include the so-called fascio littorio (the symbol of Mussolini’s ideology and regime), as well as posters of Corto Maltese or the leftist singer Rino Gaetano. These ambiguities account for CasaPound’s appeal, particularly among young people, as they strive to appear as non-conformist as possible. The anti-conformism is a strong pillar in the language of the organisation(Bartlett et al., 2012).

According to Castelli Gattinara, CasaPound aims at constructing a sense of comradeship by diversifying its political supply across numerous issues, inspired by a philosophy of life built on fascist myths and aesthetics, and on a mix neo-romanticism, irrationalism, spiritualism, and volunteerism. It is in this framework that CasaPound has developed its environmental project La Foresta che avanza (The forest that advances), which takes inspiration from the fascist’s “Mystic of the Earth.” CasaPound’s volunteerism is also mirrored by its social and civic engagement (such as La Salamandra, which operates in territories tormented by natural and/or humanitarian disasters) (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).

Iannone has stressed the logic behind the CPI’s activism and said that CasaPound works on dozens of projects and with various methods: “It is fundamental to create a web of supporters rather than focusing on elections. For elections, you are in competition with heavily financed groups and with only one or two persons elected, you can’t change anything. Politics for us is a community. That is why we are in the streets, on computers, in bookshops, in schools, in universities, in gyms, at the top of mountains or at the news stands. That is why we are in culture, social work, and sport” (Liddell, 2012). More than four in ten (44 percent) of CPI’s Facebook supporters reported participating in a street demonstration or protest. However, only one in five reported being a formal member of CasaPound. This might reflect the wider appeal that CasaPound cultural activities hold for people (Bartlett et al., 2012). 

Violence as a Method of Demonstration and Expressive Action

The main traits of Italian Fascism and the mythology of violence are inseparable (Lupo, 2005). The widespread use of violence and violent vocabulary by CPI has also to be understood as an explicit reference to Italian Fascism, which was strongly characterized by a martial rhetoric and by the glorification of violence (Blinkhorn, 2000: 69). In Mussolini’s system of values, violence represented the most just and moral, as well as the most practical way to defend one’s ideas. In a similar way, CasaPound’s militants glorify their political activism in terms of battlefield values and concepts (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Violence is actually a basis for the “militia” identity (Payne, 1999). Research (Bjorgo & Witte, 1993; Bjorgo, 1995) has shown that militants, supporters, and sympathizers are incentivized to violent action by the organization, which offers rationales for mobilization and synthesizes grievances in political and ideological discourses based on race, religion, and gender superiority. Similarly, justifications may be based on symbolized concepts such as the homeland, blood, and honour (O’Boyle, 2002; Taggart, 2000)

Despite acts of violence being rejected in official CPI policy, the group declares itself ready to defend itself in case of challenges to its survival (Bulli, 2019). CasaPound’s most explicit position with respect to violence can be found on its official website’s FAQ section: “CasaPound Italia does politics, not hooliganism. CasaPound is not interested in showing its muscles. CasaPound calls for quiet force. At the same time, however, CasaPound does not allow others to challenge its legitimate right to exist and act. We are open to dialogue, but we don’t reject confrontation when this is imposed on us and when our political and physical survival is at stake.” CasaPound militants also claim that they’re constantly under attack from anti-fascists. “We’re not a violent organisation,” one militant said, “but we’re not non-violent either.” CasaPound has sometimes relished its violent reputation, and has sometimes been angered by it (Jones, 2018). Violence is not officially endorsed, yet neither is it fully rejected; it remains an important corollary to political activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). 

CasaPound’s position on violence, therefore, has to come to terms with two opposing forces: i) The necessity of protecting the movement’s external credibility, which would require a full rejection of violence; and ii) The ideas and rhetoric of Italian Fascism were built upon a number of inherently violent elements, such as the cult of bravery and squadrismo. Squadrism expresses the image and memory of fascist violence, a specific kind of political violence committed in particular against political opponents with the purpose of gaining power (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Since Italian Fascism justified the use of violence against its opponents on the basis of the alleged superiority of its political ethics (Gentile, 1934) and also as a tool to safeguard the group’s right to expression against coercion and repression, it is impossible for CasaPound to completely disregard violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). In this sense, violence represents the noblest form of resistance against a hostile, repressive external world and becomes a means not only of survival but also of self-determination (Scianca 2011: 362). 

CasaPound cadres often underline how physical training is fundamental for CasaPound militants, as they should always be ready and “physically trained for any threat.” Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2014: 158) note that there is a threefold function of violence within CasaPound’s identity, discourse, and practices. In the first place, violence should be understood in terms of a discursive dimension (Koopmans & Olzak, 2004). It rejects political violence as a means to achieve policy success in its external rhetoric. Yet, given its need to reconnect with its fascist past, violence cannot be fully erased from the CPI’s political platform. The result is the development of a specific narrative in which violence is framed as a defensive tool used to respond to forms of repression. Secondly, violence emerges within an aesthetic dimension, by which CasaPound romanticizes and reproduces the myth and symbolic violence of Fascist Italy. Lastly, violence plays a fundamental role in CasaPound within an identity-building dimension (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

Anti-fascist protest against the candidate of the fascist political party Casapound. Clashes between antagonists and police in Turin, Italy on February 22, 2018. Photo: Stefano Guidi.

The use of violence has been mythologized in CPI’s images and practices. A good example is cinghiamattanza (belt-fighting) in which violence is directed not against out-groups but within the in-group (Castriota & Feldman, 2014: 231-232). The practices of physical violence are used to build feelings of comradeship. The medium through which networks of solidarity are built within the community is the (male) body, through practices of physical contact where the body of the militant is symbolically blended with the collective body of the community. The most widespread of these practices is collective training in combat sports. Common participation in combat sports is a fundamental moment where the militant joins in spirit and body with the collective entity. 

Besides its instrumental use as a form of action, violence also plays a fundamental role in the group’s narrative and political discourse. Violence, in other words, is rationalized as a form of resistance against an oppressive and “intolerant” anti-fascist society. Yet, when approaching internal audiences, violence emerges as a fundamental tool to strengthen solidarity and camaraderie among group members (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015) and plays a role as a constitutive element of the group’s collective identity and collective socialization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

In the public domain, CasaPound shifts the attention away from its own use of political violence, focusing instead on repression it suffers. This strategy allows the group to avoid the stigmatization often suffered by extreme right organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Authors increasingly recognize the importance of collective narratives, rituals, and symbolic repertoires in the development of protest events and violence and within processes of exclusive identity building (della Porta, 2013; Goodwin, 2004). In this understanding, the symbolic, cultural, and emotional aspects of political violence are often more significant than its material and strategic consequences. Recent research has in fact rediscovered the role of emotions in the construction and structuring of collective identities (Aminzade & McAdam 2001; Goodwin et al., 2001). Apart from physical violence, CPI makes strategic use of the mythology around a readiness to fight, verbal and physical confrontation, and speed of response in case of attack (Bulli, 2019).

As Castelli Gattinara and Froio (2014) have suggested, violence in CasaPound is linked to the history and rhetoric of fascism “justifying the use of any kind of violence against its opponents.” Violent activities have accompanied CasaPound since its birth. Reports on CasaPound in the newspaper La Repubblica between 2004 and 2012 show that about 15 percent of reported CasaPound actions were confrontational, while an additional 35 percent of events involved some form of violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Moreover, about a third of press releases issued by CPI involve physical or symbolic violence (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). Another analysis of CasaPound’s activism between 1995 and 2013 reveals that 51.5 percent of activities have been confrontational and violent (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Music is another fundamental element for understanding CasaPound’s semiotic of violence (Eyerman & Jamison, 1991). Although extreme right musical culture has generally been associated with the skinhead scene, similar tendencies have recently permeated other subcultures (O’Connell & Castelo-Branco, 2010). In the music of ZZA, violence is associated with a set of different meanings. First of all, it represents a revolutionary tool to fight the habits of consumerism and cultural homologation, and to oppose the rulers of the country and the economic system (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).

On December 13, 2011, Gianluca Casseri, a CasaPound sympathiser in Tuscany, left home with a Magnum 357 in his bag. On that morning, 50-year-old Casseri had a plan to shoot as many immigrants as possible. He went to a square in Florence and, at 12:30 pm, killed two Senegalese men. He shot another man in the back and throat and then got in his car and drove off. Just over two hours later, Casseri was at the city’s central market, where he shot two more men, who survived the attack. He then turned his gun on himself in the market’s underground carpark (Jones, 2018). These murders suggest that a mythological narration of the past does not prevent it from being reproduced in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Neo-Fascism as Show Business

The relationship between extreme right-wing organizations and the media is far from straightforward. The far right is, on the one hand, traditionally suspicious of the media which it blames for promoting liberal values and sustaining the status quo (Mudde, 2007); media attention, on the other hand, allows dissemination of far-right messages (Ellinas, 2010). In such a context, Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2015) underline that newsworthiness is the primary motivation for CPI’s choice of showcase activism and the group is primarily involved in the organization of highly media-friendly events and actions, specifically by tackling ongoing problems and public concerns, using new vocabularies, innovative symbols, and unconventional forms of protest. 

CPI has also been well aware that their visibility depends on the capacity to offer the media a product that is at the same time personalized, spectacularized, and creating controversy and debate (Esser, 2013). The media interest in CPI can, thus, be explained by their fascination with the imaginary of violence, marked by the group’s simultaneous use of conventional and unconventional forms of activism mostly centred on its idealization of a myth of action, courage, and predominantly masculine bravery (Bulli, 2019). Images traditionally associated with Italian Fascism, such as warriors, soldiers, etc., are also part of CasaPound’s visual communication (Mosse, 1996) which aims at increasing the visibility of CasaPound in the media—which may represent a fundamental tool for CPI’s survival (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

What makes CasaPound unique is its game of smoke-and-mirrors with fascinated Italian media. The media—whether intrigued, anxious, or excited—has reported on every initiative: as Di Stefano said, “everything CasaPound did became news” (Jones, 2018). There is a convergence between CPI’s activism and its communicative strategies. In this sense, the framing, and actions of CasaPound are first based on an accurate study of the mechanisms of news production and subsequently justified ideologicallyIn so doing, CasaPound is more than simply recognizable; it is a “trademark” that can be identified well beyond the traditional audiences of neo-fascism. Today, vast shares of Italian public opinion are very familiar with CasaPound thanks to CPI’s performances and ability to attract media attention (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Moreover, CPI pays particular attention to the promotion of its events on its online platforms, so that journalists often find all the information, photos, and material they need directly from the sources of the relevant group, thus allowing CPI to exert control over its own imagery and narratives. Accordingly, demonstrations and public events are organized and planned with extreme caution to produce “iconographic” results. CPI has thus demonstrated a considerable knowledge of developing a form of storytelling based on dramatization of narratives, visual staging of protest, and the construction of controversy by means of symbolic innovation and discursive hybridization (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). 

Thank to hybridization strategies—i.e. the strategic combination of organizational features and activities inspired by different political cultures, institutional party politics, and non-institutional contentious actions—five features of CPI’s politics are blurred: ideology, internal structure, activism, mobilization, and communication. Hybridization in these five main aspects of extreme right politics allows CPI to attract quality media attention while also validating extremist views in the public sphere (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020) via agitprop (agitation propaganda) actions—propaganda and demonstrations aimed at mobilizing public support. CPI benefits from this strategy of hybridization, which taps into commercial media demand for entertaining stories and simplified messages. Its unconventional mix of extreme right, pop-culture, and left-progressive styles helps ensure media coverage in both the protest and electoral arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).

In terms of political symbols, CPI also offers a hybrid media product associating pop and left-wing icons with extreme right codes. The goal is not only to empty established symbols of their meaning, but also to present an innovative and unusual narrative for responding to the commercial needs of the mass media (Castelli Gattinara, 2017). Through hybridization and media-savviness, CasaPound increasingly meet the commercial media appetite for sensational, entertaining stories and polarizing news. Ultimately, CPI has realized that complying with the logistics of news production helps ensure that fringe or extreme ideas drift into the mainstream (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).

CasaPound have reconstructed fascism as what Castelli Gattinara and Froio have characterized as a “hybrid communication style.” Images of Mussolini and fascist iconography mingle with references to cultural figures sympathetic to fascist ideas, or those who might be termed proto-fascist—Ezra Pound, obviously, but also Marinetti, D’Annunzio, Sorel, Knut Hamsun, Yeats, and Nietzsche. The effect is a strange collage of nostalgic nods to the years of the fascist ventennio and to “pop culture” (Barnes, 2019). CPI’s visual propaganda also features Che Guevara and Karl Marx alongside popular pirate cartoon characters Corto Maltese and Captain Harlock, and music by anarchist songwriter Fabrizio De André (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). This strategy has gained CasaPound a significant degree of media attention. News agencies seem to be interested in the phenomenon of “acquisition” of left-wing issues and repertoires of action by extreme-right organizations: CasaPound’s squats, concerts, and “showpiece” protests, as well as the attention it gives to issues such as homosexual rights and the environment (Castelli Gattinara et al, 2013).

Moreover, CPI activists favour hip symbols and neutral clothing—jeans and T-shirts—rather than stereotyped extreme-right styles, such as shaved heads and combat boots. This improbable mix of aesthetic influences has fascinated the Italian media, building the notion that CPI promotes a new, glamorous approach to extreme-right politics (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). Meanwhile, to maximize the visual impact of CPI’s demonstrations, participants form ranks of seven or eight persons and then march in orderly lines separated from one another by a maximum of two meters. Ideologically, these practices clearly reflect the idea of order and unity—strategically, they help the group to exert control over its own image when it interacts with the mass media during public events and enable it to extend its visibility well beyond the extreme-right milieu (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).

Competing in elections also increased CPI’s presence in the mainstream media. To enhance its political newsworthiness, CPI developed professionalized media management techniques designed to locate the party on the “friend” side of the “friend-foe” relationship between the media and the radical right. To do this, CPI specifically satiated the media’s desire for the spectacular and theatricality (Bulli, 2019). CPI made use of theatricality in all its political demonstrations, from traditional rallies to symbolic performances. By employing shocking tactics—like hanging dummies from town bridges in order to denounce rising prices, unemployment, and the pressures of immigration, or dyeing the water in the Senigallia fountain red in memory of the blood of Italians who committed suicide due to the pressures of debt—the movement achieved extensive media coverage. CPI used the term “squadrismo mediatico” (media squadrism) to describe this strategy (Bulli, 2019).

Gretel Cammelli (2018) lists some of CPI’s actions that have been defined as “mediatic squadrism”: a 2012 demonstration inside a high school in Rome that involved setting off smoke bombs and shouting for the Duce (Mussolini) to return; an incursion into the public television studio (Rai Tre) in 2009 to express disapproval of a programme (Chi l’ha visto), in which militants ran into the studio and warned the Italian public and politicians “not to play with their lives.” They had several t-shirts printed bearing the text “perfect squadrist style: dress up as a rockstar.” The media helps CPI gain visibility by providing attention to issues on which they enjoy enhanced public credibility, notably immigration and security (Boomgaarden & Vliegenthart, 2007).

When CPI has sought to clean up its image in order to penetrate mainstream Italian political debate, the media have again played a starring role in the project, helping to normalise and even glamourise the far-right movement (Torrisi, 2018). 

While CPI’s outward-oriented media practices have shaped public policy and state action, and/or set the terms of public debates and agendas, it also displays an internal media politics focused primarily on reinforcing ideological consistency and subcultural identification and constructing a brand identity that ensures internal cohesion and external distinctiveness. Hence, inward-oriented activism stands out for its function in structuring collective identities and ideological coherence (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020) associated with an alternative culture and community (Atkinson & Berg, 2016).Rather than being solely an instrument of internal propaganda and control, inward-oriented media practices serve the purpose of building the collective identity of the groups, binding militants within a common culture and ensuring their coherent representation towards the outside world (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).

CPI is also expert in the use of social media. It uses social media to garner support and help appeal to a young demographic. The language they use tends to be based on slogans, incitements, and abstract concepts, rather than articulated ideological positions. 

In addition, they use self-produced media innovatively (Bartlett et al., 2012). It now counts on one Internet television channel (Tortuga TV) and a monthly newspaper (Occidentale). The radio channel Radio Bandiera Nera (RBN, Black Flag Radio) was created in 2007. Initially hosted on the online forum Vivamafarka, RBN is now carried on fifteen radio stations in Italy and three abroad. It puts out political and cultural news and interviews, but its main content is far-right music. In 2013, the newspaper Il Primato Nazionale was created as an online newspaper covering CPI’s internal and external activities. Since its founding, it has become the press organ of CPI and hosts articles by its most prominent political and cultural figures (Bulli, 2019).

Indeed, there is a considerable symmetry between CPI’s internal structure and its media apparatus. The group can count not only on official social media profiles (Facebook, 240,000 likes; Twitter, 18,000 followers), and on a website summarizing its basic values, activities and proposals, but also on dedicated pages for each territorial branch, and individual pages for national leaders and candidates. 

Despite this fragmentation, these online platforms are very coherent in aesthetic choices and in the diffusion of messages. The graphic design and format of all websites and platforms are intended to provide a sense of ideological purity and belonging, not only through the selection of symbols, but also through the homogeneity of colours and fonts, creating a continuity between the main portal and the pages of its peripheral organizations and increasing the distinctiveness of the network. At the same time, these choices closely correspond to those observed in CPI’s offline communication and activities (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).

The coherence of CPI’s network is ensured by online activists and “web-supporters.” Web supporters are “CPI’s online task force” and are as important as other members and activists. In this respect, CPI’s media practices also produce innovative and more flexible forms of participation beyond traditional party membership (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, Facebook and Instagram closed CPI’s official accounts in 2019. A Facebook spokesman told the Italian news agency Ansa: “Persons or organisations that spread hatred or attack others on the basis of who they are will not have a place on Facebook and Instagram” (Tondo, 2019). However, a civil court in Rome has ruled that Facebook must immediately reactivate CPI’s account and pay the group €800 for each day the account has been closed (Giuffrida, 2019; Global Freedom of Expression, 2020).

Photo: http://www.casapounditalia.org

Anti-Immigration & Antisemitism

While CPI supporters oppose immigration and multiculturalism, their arguments against immigration are unconventional and on “progressive” grounds (Jones, 2018) compared with other far-right-wing organisations and is an example of “care racism.” CPI argues that immigration is bad for the immigrants themselves, as it is a form of “modern slavery” (Bartlett et al., 2012). 

“We want to stop immigration,” says Di Stefano. “Low-cost immigrant workers mean Italians are unable to negotiate wages, while the immigrants are exploited” (Kington, 2011a). Though Italy has fewer migrants than many other Western European countries (Eurostat, 2019), conservative lawmakers have painted an alarming picture of an invasion that has plunged the country into an unmanageable emergency (Povoledo, 2018). According to Bartlett et al. (2012), CasaPound’s arguments against immigration are mainly economic in nature. CasaPound argues that it is not against immigrants per se, but rather criticise immigration as a forced result of globalisation. They claim that globalisation creates a “multirazzista” (multiracist) society, where the rising number of immigrants prevents the state from protecting its own citizens.

In the political programme of CasaPound, migration constitutes the third priority, and the movement states its clear opposition to the “migration mechanism.” The programme proposes “blocking all migration inflows, sending back all irregular migrants, and sustaining any identity-based movement active in other countries capable of promoting the re-settlement of people in their own countries.” CasaPound declares its desire for “a world where the differences are protected and promoted… in order to prevent the confusion and spoiling of each identity.” Succinctly, it is stated in the programme: “Stop invasion; Italians first!” (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The “real human values” are expressed through a racially exclusionary, moralized claim on social housing. Leading up to the 2018 elections, the movement recalibrated their discursive and material focus on the housing issue in more directly xenophobic terms, with the slogan “Italians should come first and then, maybe, foreigners” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

The “manifesto della razza” published in Italy in 1938 affirmed the existence of hierarchically positioned races and the importance of preserving the “Italian race” before all others. CPI has edited its programme to eliminate any explicit references to the racist policies of the fascist epoch; nevertheless, many CasaPound statements reveal an updated version of this tendency to consider human beings different from one another (Castelli Gattinara, Froio & Albanese, 2013: 250). These statements provide an example of what in the social sciences is known as “differential racism” (Wieviorka, 1998).CasaPound does not grant any value to race as a genetic attribute, but identity is promoted as a feature deriving from the person’s culture and linked to a specific national territory. In this discourse, such identities are naturally linked to national borders and history, elements which determine the specific culture of the area in question. This specific culture in turn produces the identity of individuals, and CasaPound has declared itself ready to defend these specific cultures and traditions against the supposed risk of contamination entailed in encountering and living with different cultures. According to this logic, migrants should be sent back to their own countries because different cultures cannot live together. This example of cultural fundamentalism (Stolcke, 1995) claims different access to citizenship and civil rights depending on the origins of the individual in question (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

CasaPound’s actions often target centres hosting migrants and asylum seekers through outright attacks (Selmini, 2016) or symbolic demonstrations. Throughout 2014 and 2015, CasaPound’s leaders organised rallies against asylum centres that were due to open. All over Italy, every time a vacant building was converted into an asylum centre, CasaPound members contacted local citizens opposing the centres, offering strategic advice (Jones, 2018). This occurred, for instance, in Goro Gorino in the autumn of 2016, when CasaPound and Lega Nord activists coordinated with local resident to put together a committee to prevent asylum seekers from settling in the town, erecting a barricade across the street at night. CPI members also invaded the emergency area of a hospital in Bolzano in 2018 to protest homeless people who took refuge there overnight (Povoledo, 2018). 

Furthermore, in May 2019, angry protesters and members of the CPI tried to block a Roma family from accessing its assigned council apartment in the Casal Bruciato district of Rome. When riot police escorted a woman and her child back to the apartment, some protesters raised their arms in a fascist salute; others shouted racial insults and rape threats (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). Some female residents in the district said, “we want to see them all hanged, burned.” “Shall we call Mussolini back from the dead?” asked another woman ironically. “I wish,” replied the others (ANSA, 2019). 

Eventually, CasaPound militants went on to actually kill migrants. The first incident took place in Florence in 2011, when a CasaPound militant with a gun shot and killed two workers from Senegal; another occurred in Fermo in the summer of 2016, when a CasaPound sympathizer beat an asylum seeker to death. CasaPound’s rhetoric of opposition to migrants and different cultures open the way for violent actions and shows how the fascist past can find space for its mythological narration and thereby legitimize a specific identity in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).

Meanwhile, despite CPI’s Di Stefano stating that Mussolini’s racial laws were “a mistake… We believe in the national community and the Jews in Italy are part of that,” (Kington, 2011a) CPI is antisemitic. It cooperated with Lebanese radical Islamist group Hezbollah in 2015. While CasaPound borrows a significant amount of its ideology from Italian Fascism, it attempts to disassociate itself officially from antisemitism (Staff, 2012).

CasaPound has condemned Mussolini’s racial laws as a mistake—while also adding that they have to be understood in a context in which antisemitism was a worldwide phenomenon and not specifical to Italy (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Di Stefano said, “We are not racists, we are not antisemitic, we do not have problems with Israel,” when CPI’s political ally Matteo Salvini was denied entry into Israel on the purported basis of his CasaPound connection. In 2018, Di Stefano defended then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies regarding repatriation of illegal immigrants to Africa as “undoubtedly excellent,” and criticised humanitarian organisations and the United Nations for intervening to prevent them.

Simone Di Stefano. Photo: @distefanoTW

CasaPound’s Transnational Connections and Impact

Despite being a small group, CPI has been able to set an example for extreme-right social movements (Koch, 2013).Indeed, CasaPound has become a reference point at the European level, attracting the attention not only of the observers of political extremism, but also of the media and the public (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). Over the years, CPI’s leaders have been invited to explain its “political model” in many major European capitals (Paris, Madrid, London, Lisbon, Brussels, Warsaw). In 2011, the Finnish Resistance Movement invited members of CasaPound to a seminar in Helsinki (YLE, 2011). Other extreme-right organizations in Europe are also increasingly studying CasaPound’s experience: in November 2014, the leader of CPI was invited to the international conference, “The Awakening of Nations,” organized by the French Groupe Union Défense, along with other extremist groups such as the Greek Golden Dawn (and its Cypriote branch ELAM), the Belgian Nation, the Spanish Movimiento Sociale Republicano and Liga Joven, the French Mouvement d’Action Sociale, and some representatives from the online platform Synthèse Nationale (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). 

Moreover, CasaPound has always voraciously consumed foreign trends and repackaged them for an Italian audience: it absorbed the anti-capitalist ideas of France’s Nouvelle Droite movement and built friendships with members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (Jones, 2018). CasaPound has also promoted initiatives outside Italy through its non-profit organization Solidarité Identités. Through the Sol.Id network, CasaPound activists have engaged in projects in Burma, Crimea, Kosovo, Palestine, and Syria. Ten percent of CasaPound’s income is dedicated to the efforts of Sol.Id. Despite the group’s engagement in Syria, in support of the Assad government’s “struggle to defend its people” CasaPound activists saw no contradiction between supporting the Syrian people in their homeland and being opposed to granting asylum to Syrians fleeing to Europe (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).

On foreign policy, CPI’s core beliefs include fondness for Russia and sharp opposition to the EU, globalization, and immigration (Horowitz, 2017), and supporting a communitarian-nationalist Europe. CasaPound Facebook supporters have very negative attitudes towards the EU. CasaPound supporters were significantly more likely to cite the following when asked about their views about the EU: loss of cultural and national identity (63 percent vs only 12 percent of the Italian general public); waste of money (48 percent vs 16 percent); bureaucracy (33 percent vs 7 percent); and not enough control at external borders (46 percent vs 9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012). Nevertheless, CPI defines itself as a pro-European organization, unlike many contemporary radical-right movements. Once more, this element connects them to the tradition of the neo-fascist right dating back to the early 1950s, when fascist groups were transnational actors proposing an ideal European nation-state based on shared traditions and homogeneous cultures and values. To these ideals, CasaPound adds the proposal of a protectionist Europe, with the goal of achieving a European-wide area of economic and welfare self-sufficiency (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).

Conclusion

CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups to emerge in Europe in recent decades (Bartlett et al., 2012). Its supporters say they are not racist—but they oppose immigration because of its impact on wages and housing; claim they are not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the “traditional family” (Lidell, 2012). Never before has Italy seen an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying strategic viability that CasaPound today enjoys. Although CasaPound remains marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their policies (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).

Like other extremist movements, CasaPound is an example of the tendency in contemporary Europe to play on fears and social crisis in order to advance a right-wing ideology (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Despite its grassroots nature and extreme ideology, CPI has acquired national relevance and gained international media exposure. In recent years alone, the group opened 94 new local chapters, successfully penetrating mainstream public debates and receiving disproportionate attention by national media. The visibility of CPI’s symbols, campaigns, and brand among mainstream audiences is unprecedented for a fringe group so openly inspired by historical fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). CPI has also exploited COVID-19, calling the Italian response to the pandemic, “amateurish and partisan” (Willson, 2020). 

In the closing sentences of his essay titled “Ur-Fascism” published in the New York Review of Books, Umberto Eco (1995) warned that “it would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying: ‘I want to re-open Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares. Life is not that simple’.” The spectre of a new fascism currently haunts Italy—and Europe—but is not readily identifiable in the black-shirted urban and rural spectacles of CasaPound. It is alarming to see that a survey by Censis research institute showed 48.2 percent of Italians are in favour of having a “strongman” in power who does not care about parliament and elections, while a poll by Demos in November 2017 revealed that almost 60 percent of Italians were “very worried about the rise of fascism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). 

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Caricature of The Five Star Movement in carnival parade of floats and masks, made of paper-pulp in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy in January 2018.

Institutionalized Populism: The “Strange Case” of the Italian Five Star Movement

The Five Star Movement (M5S) is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

By Amedeo Varriale*

Italy’s Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) has long been considered a left-wing populist formation. This is mainly because its original agenda was dedicated to addressing five themes (the so-called “five stars”) that were the preserve of the 20th century’s post-materialist left-wing parties and movements—public watersustainable transport,sustainable developmenttechnology, and environmentalism. They are typical issues of the post-1968 New Left (Tarchi, 2015: 337).

The New Left encompassed various European parties that gradually abandoned their original radically authoritarian, Marxist, statist positions to embrace contemporary issues such as environmentalism, feminism, and globalization (Damiani, 2016: 13). We know that these left-wing establishment parties[1] adopt a more liberal and libertarian outlook than the anti-systemic extreme left.[2] Today, the Dutch Socialist Party, the M5S, La France Insoumise, SYRIZA, and PODEMOS flirt with populism rather than with Marxist–Leninism and are no longer necessarily inspired by the old Soviet (or even Chinese) model (Moffit, 2020: 55–70). Today, some contemporary left-wing parties may very well be fully populist, given they adopt a particularistic form of politics that involves people-centric appeals and unmediated forms of communication. In this way, they go beyond the clientelist, formalist, and territorial politics of the traditional social-democratic mass parties.

The Five Star Movement, one of the youngest children of the reformist and progressive New Left (which some scholars like Luke March associate with the “radical left”[3]), is a perfect example. It gained serious popularity, not by using outdated Marxist tropes but by embracing left-wing populism[4] and mobilizing disenchanted voters in a period of widespread social malaise. This form of populism, quite different from the significantly more anti-migrant and socially conservative right-wing variant, is an ideology that combines left-wing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric of left-wing populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the establishment, and speaking for the “common people” (Ibid). While themes like anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism, and anti-globalization are very much relevant to these populists, class struggle and class society, as well as socialist theory, are not as important as they are to traditional left-wing parties (Ibid). The case of the Five Star Movement, which will be analyzed in the following paragraphs, is very much a demonstration of this.

Suppose we follow Cas Mudde’s (2004: 543) lead and treat populism as an ideology that considers society as two homogeneous and antagonistic groups (“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”) and holds that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. In that case, the Five Star Movement is a left-populist party. The raison d’être of the party ever since its first protests (the V’Day protests in 2007) has been to pressure professional political elites to step down in order to take politics back to the people (Tarchi, 2015). Their first offensives were against the Italian establishment, which they saw as untrustworthy and detrimental to the commonwealth (Tarchi, 2015).

Populists of the left purport to give a voice to the silent majority—the ordinary men and women who (according to the populists) are being let down by career politicians, bureaucrats, corporate bankers, the media, and the European techno-managerial establishment in Brussels and Strasbourg that has usurped governing power. Unlike the populist right, the grillini (a term used by Italian pundits to refer to supporters of the M5S’s “guarantor” Beppe Grillo) do not openly argue that Italian ethnic and cultural identity is under threat by a wave of immigration perpetrated by financial corporations (or “liberal elites” conspiring to create a new order based on multiculturalism and cheap labor). Instead, the grillini propagate the left-wing populist narrative that social democracy has failed—in no longer representing its old electoral base and betraying its egalitarian principles (Gandesha, 2018).

Moreover, Grillo has openly called for the left to abandon the concept of class struggle in favor of a so-called caste struggle (Tarchi, 2015: 351; Zazzara, 2019: 110). To some degree, this is a defensible approach, at least according to proponents of left–populism like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Moffit, 2020: 65). For some time, high-ranking M5S members like Alessandro Di Battista and Grillo himself have justified their attacks on elites by arguing that “the caste” has steadily impoverished Italians (Ci hanno impoveriti). The leadership argues that only the M5S (the so-called “true democrats”) can “open up parliament like a can of tuna” to restore to power everyday citizens with ordinary qualities such as common sense (Tarchi, 2015). This is in line with their call for direct democracy, a feature that, alongside anti-elitism, is central to understanding the true ethos of the party.

Beppe Grillo speaks during a public meeting of the 5 Star Movement in Florence, Italy on March 8, 2009. Photo: Giacomo Morini.

Ideology and Discourse

The French political scientist Guy Hermet (2000: 80) long ago observed that populism’s capacity to capitalize electorally on cultural, financial, and political crises and its futurist, quasi-utopian, and millenarian features make it palatable to left- as well as right-wing forms (Tarchi, 2015: 374). Hermet’s vision has been borne out by the Five Star Movement, which has deftly navigated Italy’s post-2009 recession and post-2015 refugee crises in recent years. Beyond established thinkers like Hermet, newer commentators like Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008) advance the idea that populism can indeed be left-oriented.[5] In fact, popular sovereignty in the past has very much been a theme of focus adaptable to the republicanism and commitment to democratic principles of the center-left (Tarchi, 2015: 373).

Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement cannot be treated as a classic left-wing party and has never been particularly committed to liberal republicanism. Yet its overt focus on the majoritarian aspects of democracy (linked to what Peter Mair defined as the popular pillar of democracy[6]) and commitment to the nation’s sovereignty and the volonté générale of Italian citizens falls in line with the definition of left-wing populism provided above. For example, expanding the welfare state—a typical left-wing policy—and the so-called Reddito di Cittadinanza (a kind of universal basic income scheme) were “signature policies” that the M5S took to the 2018 elections (Mancini, 2020).

The overt hostility toward elites embedded within the M5S ideology saw Grillo and his circle try (and fail) to introduce a “recall” procedure[7] and referendums without a quorum (i.e., against privatization of water, nuclear energy, and the Euro) into the Italian system (Tarchi, 2015: 341; Adnkronos, 2014). However, they were successful in reducing parliamentary salaries and the number of MPs (Brunetti, 2019). Another great success was blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has intervened militarily in Yemen and thus been party to severe breaches of international human rights laws (according to the United Nations, a child under the age of five dies every ten minutes in Yemen). Such policies reflect a blending of the polymorphous ideology of populism and the zealously egalitarian and pacifist values of the New Left.

In order to understand the discourse and ideology of the “strange political animal”[8] that is the M5S, we must first look at the background of its founders—Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio.[9] Grillo, an ex-comedian, is well-known for his passionate tirades against the establishment (i.e., the leftist Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or Forward Italy). Casaleggio was a wealthy entrepreneur from the technology sector who invested in the revolutionary “Gaia project”—inspired by the 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” written by the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron—that seeks to dismantle parliamentary, representative systems to bring democratic processes online (Musso and Maccaferri, 2018). It is for this reason (among others) that Chris Bickerton (2018) has spoken about the Five Star Movement as a “techno–populist” party. Grillo has never hidden his admiration for the internet and has gone so far as to point out that the web is a collective good and a necessary one since “even prostitutes do their business online, without the inefficient and unfair mediation of pimps (Tempi, 2013). In addition, both founders expressed convictions that the web reflects the values of the egalitarian left (it is apparently “Franciscan, anti-capitalist”) and that “online, ideas and sharing ideas are worth more than money” (Natale and Ballatore, 2014: 10; Grillo and Casaleggio, 2011: 9).

The M5S web portal “Rousseau” (directly inspired by the French thinker’s ideas of the volonté générale, civic nationalism, and direct democracy) is central to party organization. Through the portal, party members (not just MPs) choose what candidates to field for important local, municipal, regional, and national elections (Stockman and Scalia, 2019). Time and time again, the press and committed constitutionalists have criticized the party’s “digital primary” process for its lack of transparency, as explained in the book by a veteran of Italian journalism Bruno Vespa (2018). In conversation with someone intricately linked to the movement, Vespa underlines how—contrary to the conventional wisdom—decision-making within the movement is not at all bottom-up but is instead quite top-down. Ideas other than those of Grillo and Casaleggio are readily dismissed (Vespa, 2018). This has sometimes resulted in members being expelled, including Federico Pizzarotti, the former mayor of Parma, and Giovanni Favia, an M5S politician from the Emilia-Romagna region (who revealed to journalists that there is no democracy in the M5S as Casaleggio manages every single programmatical aspect), and many others.[10]

Grillo’s agenda, especially on immigration, has often conflicted with that of the activists who are in theory able to use “Rousseau” to advance proposals and policy ideas. For instance, when two Five Star MPs (Maurizio Buccarella and Andrea Cioffi) proposed decriminalizing illegal immigration, Grillo reprimanded them, saying that it was not in the electoral program, although the majority of the members had voted in favor. Rather than implement the members’ decision, Grillo has since ignored or avoided discussing it in public (Parodi, 2019). Nonetheless, the M5S cannot exactly be considered pro-immigrant either. Grillo has always been skeptical of multiculturalism, as numerous posts on his blog make clear: “Citizenship for those born in Italy to parents born elsewhere makes no sense” (Grillo, 2012). It is clear given their positioning in parliament—abstaining on votes that would make access to Italian citizenship easier for immigrants—that Grillo’s party supports ius sanguinis (citizenship inherited through parents) to the current policy of iusoli(citizenship by birth) (Tarchi, 2015: 344).

It is also true that Grillo’s partisan leanings are ambiguous—he has never declared himself right-wing and did once attempt to become a candidate for the center-left (but in practice neoliberal) Democratic Party. Moreover, he often reiterates his passion for leftist egalitarian principles. He once stated that “Everyone counts, regardless of their social position. I want a single mother with four children to be able to become mayor of a city…” (Tarchi, 2015: 342). Interestingly, this ambiguity has led pundits to question whether the Five Star’s success among older, disenchanted center-right voters is merely a direct result of his and Luigi Di Maio’s (former M5S leader, deputy prime minister, and current Italian foreign minister) rants against pro-immigrant NGOs (rather than migrants themselves). Both Grillo and Di Maio have been given to localist, folkloristic, identitarian discursive–performative devices that sometimes resonate well with the populist right (Damilano, 2020).

Grillo is known to begin some of his semi-ironic public addresses by pointing to the audience and shouting “Italians!” Here, perhaps, observers have drawn a false equivalence with Mussolini’s nationalistic populism (Scanzi, 2013). Nonetheless, Di Maio has accused Grillo of being too centrist and has openly expressed his sympathy for national–conservative values of economicterritorial, and popular sovereignty. Di Maio has said that “the term sovereignty is found in the very first article of the Italian Constitution… Sovereignty means… defending the interests of Italians. If this is a crime, then arrest us all [the M5S] because this is what we have started doing.”[11]

Commentators like Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini (2019: 167) are perhaps correct in defining these left-wing populists as “multi-ideological” (rather than “post-ideological”). Grillo (2013) has stated in his blog that he is “proudly populist” and has always wanted the M5S—which is supposed to be an “idea, not an ideology”—to function as a big-tent party (Tarchi, 2015: 339). For Grillo, the M5S is a political force to mobilize the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, and both private and public sector workers. The big-tent approach comes from the goal of fundamentally destabilizing representative democracy by forcing it to abandon programmatic parties in favor of partyless democracy,which all forms of populism promote to some degree (Mair, 2002). Grillo insists on “a state without parties governed by citizens directly, for a limited amount of time and as a civic service” (Tarchi, 2015: 339).

Setting aside the fact that the M5S is polymorphous and is understood to have many currents within it, we can argue (taking Grillo’s words at face value) that his organization is “neither left-wing nor right-wing—it is a movement of Italians” (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2013). In any case, a close look inspection of the M5S shows it seeks to mobilize the angry, the frustrated, and the disenchanted—those Italians who nurture a profound distrust for mainstream politics. Nevertheless, the core message of the party hues close to the ethos of the left—namely, foregrounding environmental issues and harshly criticizing the economic and political power of the big industrial groups (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2013: 432).

Supporters of Five Stars Movement in Naples rally with Italian flag and political symbol of the movement in Napoli, Campania, Italy on May 30, 2018. Photo: Antonio Balasco.

Organizational Structure

The Five Star Movement has not been a fully institutionalized party for long (the party first entered parliament in 2013 and was in opposition before June 2018). For this reason, the organizational structure is skeletal and deliberately so (Sun, 2019: 33). At the top, of course, we find the “Guarantor” of the party, Beppe Grillo, known to have strong links with the Casaleggio family and its company, Casaleggio Associati. His role is to set the tone and preserve the dynamic, protest-movement-like nature of the organization (as dictated in its party manifesto[12]) as well as to decide “who’s in and who’s out” (Tarchi, 2015: 359). In other words, Grillo—alongside Casaleggio, the movement’s chief ideologue, and his apprentice Di Maio (who quit as leader in early 2020[13]), both technically below Grillo in the M5S hierarchy—have set the political agenda.

Yet, it is inaccurate to view the M5S strictly as a hierarchical, top-down, leaderist party. Indeed, Bordignon and Ceccarini (2013: 438) have referred to it as a stratarchical organization because power is effectively dispersed through the ranks. Since those ranks are often in open disagreement with each other, there is a tendency toward internecine conflict. It is unclear whether the Members’ Assembly (“Assemblea Degli Iscritti”)—an advisory board of mostly parliamentary members that meets annually—is below Grillo and the party head (who is a political and legal frontman) vis-à-vis administrative decision-making and policy proposals (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163).

What is certain is that the Committee of Trustees (“Comitato di Garanzia”) has the power to supervise applications for membership and policy proposals. In 2018, the committee comprised Vito Crimi (who replaced Di Maio as “political head” in 2020), Roberta Lombardi, and Giovanni Cancellieri. It shares some power on important decisions with the Board of Arbitrators (“Collegio dei Probiviri”) (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). The board’s task to monitor members’ compliance with party rules and take disciplinary action if needed (as when two MP’s were expelled for giving unapproved interviews on state television while under the M5S banner) (Tgcom24, 2021). The role of treasurer is essential, as it oversees internal and external financial resources (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). Di Maio has held the role previously, but somewhere in the summer of 2020, the position went to the MP Sergio Battelli, who took on the delicate task of managing the EU’s Recovery Fund in Italy (Zapperi, 2020).

To be clear, the majority of these roles have been assigned to party members through internal (albeit relatively non-transparent) procedures of direct democracy. While direct democracy is essentially unconstitutional in Italy, the fact that Grillo himself owns the party logo and that the “Rousseau” platform (used for political purposes even as the party has access to public funds) is entirely in the hands of a private commercial firm like Casaleggio Associati casts some doubt on the bottom-up, spontaneous, protest-like image of the party that Five Star politicians like to portray (Biondo, 2019).

Five Star activists and grassroots members do not really appear to be entitled to all this liberty of self-expression (as much as Grillo claims) because if ever activists cease to “toe the party line,” they risk expulsion (or worse). More than once, Casaleggio’s son Davide—who inherited all the property of the Rousseau Association after his father’s death—has threatened to sue his own MPs and take complete charge of the platform if they fail to pay their membership dues on time (Lombardo, 2020).

A large demonstration was held by the 5 Star Movement against the privileges of politics in Rome, Italy on February 15, 2020. Photo: Gennaro Leonardi.

Domestic Policy

The domestic policy of the Five Star Movement has been relatively straightforward. It advances partially redistributive and quasi-socialist economic policy to reduce socioeconomic inequality in Italy. Recent studies conducted by Ruth-Lovell (2019), Doyle (2019), and Hawkins (2019) show that governing populists of both the left and the right have committed to reducing the gap between the very rich and the poor and are more likely to do this with a welfarist approach rather than via tax relief (Moffit, 2020: 52–54). The aforementioned Reddito di Cittadinanzareally a policy of welfare chauvinism(in both its positive and negative aspects)—has been the M5S’s way of presenting itself as a pro-social and pro-working-class party committed to an essentially leftist agenda (Brancaccio and Fruncillo, 2019: 129–158).

Political opponents from both the left and the right have attacked these welfarist policies as too costly and poorly implemented. Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement has continued to operate as a populist force in government. Certainly, the party has steadily institutionalized itself and has had to back away from some “binding” commitments (e.g., holding a referendum on the Euro, opposition to the single market, and the promise not to ally with old rivals, like the national populist[14] Lega party and the Democrats). Still, the party has managed to implement a series of its 2018 election pledges to spec (Di Maio, 2020). For example, M5S MPs successfully maneuvered to rescind the dysfunctional Fornero Law (a labor-market reform from 2011 aimed at reducing youth unemployment), scrapped the “golden pensions scheme” for MPs, and introduced harsh measures to combat public corruption (known as the spazzacorotti or “bribe destroyer” law) and a new decree to combat climate change. The M5S has worked hard to reduce the cost of the Italian state and limit the privileges of the political class (Di Maio, 2020). A referendum pushed forward by the Five Star Movement in conjunction with some other parties legislated a drastic reduction in the number of Italian MPs in September 2020. The move has been viewed favorably across the political spectrum and by most voters in Italy. In sum, the M5S has managed to shift the parliamentary demographic of the country. The arrival of grillini MPs into both of Italy’s chambers (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) after 2013 has produced a significant increase in the degree to which ordinary Italians feel involved and engaged in official political processes (Rapisarda, 2018).

Citizens who had never considered a political career nor had any involvement whatsoever with public administration—including former doctors and surgeons, tradesmen, volunteers from the private sector, primary sector workers, and teachers (among others)—have nonetheless begun to work in state institutions for the very first time (Agenzia Italia, 2019). The new civic consciousness and engagement of the “ordinary Italian” have been viewed as part of a great season of change in the history of Italian democracy (Ibid). Moreover, the number of young women in parliament has increased markedly, and commentators on the progressive left and more liberal right consider this a significant step forward for the country (Ibid).

The coalitions that the M5S has joined have also produced a marked turn in Italian policy toward the EU, often in a positive direction. To begin, the M5S—and its coalition partner and fellow populist outfit Lega—were the first parties in many years to openly confront Brussels over its uncompromising and often hostile approach to budgetary matters (Moschella and Rhodes, 2020: 4–5). Thus, the Troika had a hard-time taming Italy’s populists, in contrast with the position it had in conflicts with the Greek state in the past. Indeed, the Italian populists have aggressively defended a spending program that included both an expansion of welfare and a generalized cut of taxation—against the much-defended austerity approach of the European Commission (Politi2018). Of course, an expansive budgetary approach is what led Italians to vote for radically populist and Euroskeptic parties in the first place.

Most pundits will argue that the most controversial aspect of the Five Star Movement’s domestic policy has been its tough line on immigration and security (the latter actually unrelated to migrants). Most M5S MPs voted to save Matteo Salvini (the deputy prime minister and off-and-on ally of the movement) from prosecution after he repeatedly refused to allow a rescue ship full of migrants to enter Italian ports in breach of international humanitarian laws (Reuters, 2021). Another controversy arose around a publicity stunt led by Salvini and the justice minister (from the M5S). In a classic example of “penal populism (a term coined to describe the use of crime in populist propaganda[15]) the two were in attendance for the cameras when the narco-terrorist Cesare Battisti—who had just been extradited from Brazil—landed back on Italian territory.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio attended a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium on September 21, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Foreign Policy

The Five Star Movement’s foreign policy has always been somewhat contentious. From the outset, the grillini have rhetorically advocated for a re-alignment—or at least a reconsideration of aspects of Italy’s classic foreign policy orientation. Thus, the party has challenged Atlanticism, Europhilia/Europeanism, military interventionism—including peace-keeping operations —as well as large-scale multi-national capitalist projects (such as the EU-funded Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline or TAP)—in favor of a politically different direction. A big part of the Five Star Movement’s agenda has involved tilting Italy’s foreign policy axis toward China and, to a lesser degree Russia (Coratella, 2020). This “Euro-critical” approach—usually accompanied by mild anti-Americanism—comes directly from within the more socialist currents of the M5S, especially those led by the rabble-rouser Di Battista and the more institutionalist but no less ideologically driven Roberto Fico, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies.

Long before their first experience in government (which continues to this day), the Five Star had always exhibited a thinly veiled hostility toward neoliberal Western powers. This has included the German and French governments (in the latter case, by sending party representatives to meet the leaders of the insurrectionist “Gilet Jaunes” or “Yellow Vests” to express their sympathy), but also the United States before Trump. Grillo, Di Battista, and other leading figures in the organization have never really hidden their affinity for the developing world and certain “rogue states” (Tarchi, 2015: 352). So much so that in government, the Five Star Movement refused to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as president (Binelli, 2019). The party’s support for withdrawing Italian troops from Afghanistan is another example of a deep skepticism toward globalism and a quasi-isolationist weltanschauung typical of populists of both the left and the right (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 12).

The Five Star Movement’s uncompromising opposition to Italy’s adoption of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM), its constant critiques of NATO’s defensive strategy (an approach reminiscent of the old Italian communist left of Enrico Berlinguer), its position against EU sanctions on Russia, and its desire to reform the statute of the European Central Bank (ECB) all align neatly with the party’s populist ideology. The more ideological populists are usually highly critical of the mainstream media and high finance “castes” (Panebianco, 2020).

The early Five Star Movement in opposition (2009–2018) was undoubtedly a lot more Euroskeptic than the current one, which had to evolve politically once confronted with real institutional power. Governing the third-largest EU member state has inevitably meant making compromises with other parties once demonized (especially the Democratic Party) and shelving some of their more bizarre and radical policies. These include initiatives such as ceasing negotiations over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), MP selection by lottery, and scrapping Article 67 of the Italian Constitution, which exempts MPs from any “vincolo di mandato”—the obligation to act strictly according to the voters’ mandate.

Five Star MPs (with some exceptions) are now more cautious in pointing the finger at the EU as the perpetrator of Italy’s evils (namely, low growth and high unemployment). Still, they remain critical of most of their old enemies and have continued to antagonize them subtly. For example, the agreements of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—known in Italy as “the people’s lawyer”—with China over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were frowned upon in Washington (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 10).

Furthermore, allegations have surfaced that Five Star’s political operations have been financed by Venezuela’s authoritarian government, which has worried the other parties they worked with in parliament to get bills passed (Bozza, 2020). Rhetoric and bizarre proposals aside, in its three years as part of governing coalitions, the Five Star Movement has never entirely severed ties with Italy’s foreign allies nor seriously damaged or impeded progress in diplomatic and economic relations. In fact, in commenting on the foreign policy of the populist coalition (of which the M5S was supposedly a senior partner), the former Italian diplomat Ferdinando Nelli Feroci (2019: 11) has pointed out that “despite uncertainty and ambiguity,” the populists have “pursued a line of relative, albeit often hesitant continuity.”

Five Star Movement office in the downtown in Ginosa, Italy on July 19, 2019. Photo: Diego Fiore.

Transnational Alliances

Even if there are ideological similarities that can be drawn with other movements or anti-establishment parties like the Pirate Party in Germany or the Gilet Jaunes, there has been no substantial political agreement between the Five Star and such political forces apart from limited political flirtation and informal communication (during the early days). The Five Star Movement (along with UKIP) formed the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in 2014 after a vote on the “Rousseau” platform (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). Unsurprisingly, because Grillo initially wanted to present the party in international as well as national politics as anti-establishment and radically reformist, he pointedly excluded the option of joining the somewhat ideologically similar but more moderate Greens/EFA (Ibid).

Once the M5S joined the EFDD, it was clear that Grillo’s political marriage to Nigel Farage and like-minded people was one of convenience (Ibid). Belonging to one group or another in the European Parliament usually signifies something deeper than just ideological affinity and is always somewhat functional to long-term strategic objectives at the domestic level. At least, this appeared to be the case for the Five Star Movement. It and UKIP were distant on the environment, domestic economic policy, and many aspects of foreign policy. However, they surely agreed on the fact that elites have abandoned the “losers of globalization” and that Brussels is a bully that prevents nation-states from making their own monetary decisions and controlling their own borders (Ibid). Both parties saw themselves as representing the “Europe of the people” rather than of the big banks (Michieli and Luxardo, 2016: 1–14).

Either way, the Five Star Movement (and apparently UKIP as well) treated EU alliances as secondary to what occurred in the national arena (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). By 2020, M5S had already broken away from EFDD and was left with just 14 MEPs[16] (Bresolin, 2020). Other members of EFDD relied on the movement because even if they voted differently on certain motions regarding the environment and relations with foreign superpowers (albeit similarly on EU integration issues), they still needed a big party from a large member state like Italy to avoid problems related to funding and finances, and voting rights in executive positions.[17]

Bressanelli and De Candia (2018) report on recent research that the Five Star Movement is only moderately Euroskeptic. This soft Euroscepticism results in the Five Star voting like the European left-wing GUE/NGL and G/EFA on issues that do not explicitly involve more EU integration or direct democracy. At the end of the day, the movement did not really fit the EFDD due to its staunch anti-globalism, anti-immigration policy, and skepticism toward issues related to the environment or state intervention. A keen eye would notice that M5S and UKIP voted the same way less than half the time and are on different ends of the spectrum despite a shared populist style of communication (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48).

The “Rousseau” base voted overwhelmingly in favor in another vote on whether to join Guy Verhofstadt’s center-left ALDE. However, the existing ALDE membership decided it was a dangerous move that would risk a split by those group members more hostile and skeptical toward the Five Star Movement (Ibid). Verhofstadt himself feared the alliance might damage his image.

By 2017, many realized that Grillo’s strategy of moving away from the UKIP hardliners and the rest of the EFDD had some political logic. With the 2018 general elections approaching and a very weakened center-left after Matteo Renzi’s departure, the M5S wanted to project itself as an institutionally responsible party ready to lead the nation and to capture the majority of moderates and center-left voters disenchanted with the Italian Democratic Party (Ibid). If the M5S wanted to have a shot at becoming Italy’s leading party following Renzi’s exit from politics, it had no choice but to assure wealthy Italian families, national corporate and political elites, and international financial markets that it was not an “extremist” group and did not intend to leave the Eurozone. To some extent, this strategy paid off —M5S took 32 percent of the vote and emerged as the leading Italian party in competition with the center-right, although it had to ally with Lega to form a government.

From Opposition to Power: A Five-Starred Future?

In mid-2021, the Five Star Movement was polling between 16–17 percent and was lagging behind the right-wing parties (Lega and Brothers of Italy) and the center-left Democratic Party (Termometro Politico, 2021). This is undoubtedly disappointing for a party that saw significant electoral gains off the back of the 2008–2009 financial crisis and the refugee/immigration crisis of 2015 to become the leading party by 2018 (Bulli and Soare, 2018).

Having spent the last few months of 2020 in the lost cause of saving Conte (who used to present himself as a Eurosceptic populist before his purported switch to being a staunch Europhile anti-populist), the grillini are really struggling with their political identity (Di Niro, 2021; The Submarine, 2020). Defending Conte until the end and then supporting the candidacy of former ECB head Mario Draghi as prime minister cost Grillo, Crimi, and Di Maio their parliamentary majority, with many MPs fleeing the party (Cuzzocrea, 2021). Also, the “pure heart” populist Di Battista publicly distanced himself from the party that he had helped build, showcasing his disdain for what is largely seen as a technocratic executive serving with the support of a center-right–center-left political coalition (Pucciarelli, 2021). This “grand coalition” was created to help Italy overcome the Covid–19 crisis and includes characters as distinct from each other as Enrico Letta and Matteo Salvini.

The Five Star’s identity had almost always been taboo for its semi-centralized leadership, which must constantly appease the infighting among distinct ideological currents and personalities within. Recently this ideological divide had become too obvious to deny. In December last year, 22 EU-critical Five Star representatives from the Chamber of Deputies voted against a motion on the new ESM or abstained (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2020). Even more M5S Senators appeared happy to take the political risks of pitting themselves against party chair Di Maio by voting in favor (Ibid).

The party is highly factionalized. The first is the institutionalist faction (or centrist faction) made up of MPs who follow Di Maio and Fico — the former more centrist and moderate, the latter openly progressive–leftist —in strategy. Both cabinet ministers want M5S to remain a party open to almost any kind of alliance to stay in power. The second is the “rebel hearts” who prefer to follow Di Battista’s guidance on policy and approach. This radical-left-wing populist faction has always been committed to anti-capitalism and hardline, anti-political (sometimes Manichean) principles. Di Battista and his followers are obviously less keen on broad alliances. Then there is the futuristic techno–populist factioncomprised of traditional M5S activists who rally behind Casaleggio and Grillo on the party’s blog to bring about a digital revolution that involves direct democracy at the national level. One of the oldest factions, its members maintain a cordial yet ambiguous relation with Di Maio’s wing mainly because they know they are forced to work within institutions if they want to change them. The fourth grouping is the environmentalist faction which does not have a true reference point or political figure within the party but oscillates between Grillo’s futuristic techno-populists and Di Battista’s populist-left.

Alessandro Di Battista conference with his supporters during M5S event in Imola, Italy on October 17, 2015. Photo: Benny Marty.

Last, but not least, there is a minority that feels better represented by Conte and went out of its way to convince moderates from other opposition parties to vote to save his second prime ministership. We would possibly call this the loyalist faction as it comprises all those who believe Conte is the only one that can lead the movement in a fully Europeanist and responsible direction. These loyalists believe Conte did his best in administrating Italy during the Covid era by cooperating with European allies like the Germans and the French. This faction is careful to behave institutionally (probably even more so than Di Maio and Fico’s) and follow the Italian constitution to the letter. In fact, after some experience in government (initially alongside Lega), Conte’s men evolved away from the anti-politics approach of the past and came around to the idea that it is impossible to rid Italy of the establishment altogether. They now realize that the vast array of checks and balances introduced into the Italian political system after the Second World War mean that political actors are inexorably drawn into the establishment.

It bears noting that the institutionalization of the M5S has meant it has shed many of those right-wing, anti-establishment voters that contributed to its success in the highly volatile general election of 2013. Back then, Grillo’s team could rely on its anti-establishment appeal, which later manifested in Gianluigi Paragone’s[18] now-defunct Italexit–No Europe for Italy party that gave a direction and meaning to the M5S’s more nationalist proposals. Even if Paragone claims to lean socialist,[19] in and out of parliament, he has focused a lot on issues concerning territorial (e.g., anti-immigration) and economic (e.g., Italy’s disputes with the European Commission on the budget) sovereignty that are seen as the preserve of the political right.

For a party that has worked very hard to appear honest, hard-working, law-abiding, and a vehicle for reform to bring ordinary people into the political sphere, the M5S has had to make painful choices. The party was famously committed to eschewing all political alliances with other forces, refused to participate in mainstream media or television talk shows (as they feared being scapegoated), declined to recognize the legitimacy and importance of parliament, failed to address the inefficiency of the horizontal and decentralized[20] online platforms (occasionally mediated in a more authoritative, top-down manner by Grillo), and refused to admit that even an anti-establishment populist party can be susceptible to corruption and mismanagement (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171).

All these aspects are manifest in the problems faced by Five Star mayors and local councils in Rome and Turin[21](Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171). Above all, the backtracking on commitments and promises has seen the M5S become a party of government and a quasi-institutionalized organization. The political understanding that led to coalitions with Lega and the Democratic Party and ongoing parliamentary representation since 2013 has eroded the rebellious “anti-politics” quality of the early Five Star Movement. The result has been electoral poison in a country where elections have become highly volatile and with an electorate increasingly populated by non-voters who no longer identify with mainstream politics (Corbetta and Gualmini, 2013).

With Conte gone and following its many ideological and programmatic about-faces, the left-wing populists of the Five Star Movement are now on the verge of collapse. After changing course vis-à-vis sanctions on Russia, failing to deliver an EU referendum, changing its position on mandatory vaccines (this was one of Grillo’s favorite rallying cries), and completely abandoning its opposition to the TAP, there is a sense voter do not trust the party. The party’s fate appears to dovetail with that of populists in government (of both the left and right) in many parts of the world, thanks to the challenges associated with managing the Covid-19 crisis (Zangana, 2020).

On the right, Donald Trump lost the pivotal 2020 election, and Salvini — while back in government —is hamstrung in pushing his Eurosceptic agenda with Draghi in charge. On the other side of the Alps, Marine Le Pen (although ahead in polls) will struggle against Emmanuel Macron, who has reinvented himself as a civic nationalist who is “tough” on Islamists. Across the Atlantic, Jair Bolsonaro’s “machismo” stance on the virus has radicalized his own supporters and damaged his credibility with moderate conservative voters. He is now viewed as a full-blown authoritarian abroad and is widely blamed for more than 300,000 Covid-19 related deaths in Brazil.

On the left, the picture is not looking so bright either. The Five Star Movement, which was actually one of the most popular left-leaning populist forces worldwide (perhaps even more than Pablo Iglesias’s PODEMOS in Spain), has now become a pale imitation of the neoliberal Democratic Party and has lost more of its support in less than two years as a result. SYRIZA, the original and arguably most successful left-populist government in resisting EU edicts, are now out of government in Greece and have lost most of their “propulsive force” (a term used by Enrico Berlinguer to describe the Soviet Union’s downward spiral). Notwithstanding the effects of the pandemic, left-wing populists will most likely try to revive themselves as early as 2022, given the European Commission’s poor handling of the vaccine rollout offers a political lifeline that can be capitalized on at the ballot box.

Attacks on Big Pharma—at which the Five Star Movement excelled in the early days—are as effective when launched from the radical left as from the right. The European populist-left, unlike the center-left, is starting to understand that progressivism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ+ rights are not the only issues to be taken into consideration during agenda-setting. The public zeitgeist teaches us that much ground is being cleared for the right on socioeconomic issues, which is disadvantaging the left. Suppose the Five Star Movement were to return to being the unrelentless force that undermined the very legitimacy of the Italian neoliberal status quo. In that case, it will be because it will have returned to its roots as a credible big-tent party for the working classes, as the electorally more successful populists on the right (e.g., Chega!, Vox, Rassemblement National, and Fidesz) are. The “losers of globalization” are today no less disenchanted with mainstream politics than they were after the infamous collapse of Lehman Brothers, which for some remains an open wound (Stephens, 2018).

Conclusion

The M5S is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

Some accuse the movement of pandering to the anti-immigrant “far-right” due to its short-lived coalition experiment with Salvini. Others like Bickerton focus too much on its “techno–populist” media-savvy, treating it primarily as a vehicle for a digital revolution. Instead, one must attempt to understand the Five Star Movement in its entirety and for what it really is—namely, a legacy of the New Left and an institutionalized populist-left party. The Greek intellectual Takis S. Pappas reminds us that populists tend to march toward institutions and can remain entrenched inside for extended periods as they seek to remake them (Pappas, 2019: 74).

Grillo has managed to bring an initially disorganized mass of his followers (who all held differing beliefs yet with a common anti-establishment denominator) together by mobilizing them online and giving a political flavor to anti-political protest. This protest was against pro-austerity center-right and center-left forces that dominated Italy’s bipolar system. However, there is no doubt that the majority of Five Star Movement activists, supporters, and parliamentarians—even when identifying as “post-ideological”—have views that fit much more readily with the left than the right. Their commitment to expanding welfare, technological innovation, migrant integration, environmental protection, civil liberties, and half-hearted (but still crucial) anti-capitalist crusades are certainly not those of the populist right. National populists of the right are instead mainly concerned with defending a nation’s borders, the traditional family, and ethno-cultural identity and tend to favor Atlanticism. For this reason, in assessing the ideology, discourse, and policies of the Five Star Movement, we must treat it as a case of left-wing populism or “social-populism.”

Even today, while being an active part of liberal Italian institutions, most of the policies they push forward are considered too radical and too leftist by neoliberal actors on the right and left (such as Forza Italia and the Democratic Party). The M5S clearly opted for a strategy of political compromise to retain its grip on power and maintain its parliamentary majority so as to ensure its influence over domestic policy (especially when it comes to the handling of EU funds). Yet, there is reason to believe that the scholar Marco Tarchi was right about the movement. Grillo’s creation is potentially a case of the purest forms of populism in Europe (Tarchi 2015: 333).

Not only have they upended Italy’s bipolar party system, but they have shepherded scores of ordinary people with no prior political experience into parliament and other state institutions. Their populist style and communication (always present to some degree since Benito Mussolini and Guglielmo Giannini) are now embedded within the democratic system and process. Evidence of this can be found in many anti-political television programs like “Piazzapulita” (“clean slate”), “Dritto e Rovescio” (“obverse and reverse”), and the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (“the daily fact”). The latter is openly sympathetic to the Five Star cause. In addition, examples of systemic populism manifest in the series of organized rhetorical attacks, threats, and brawls in parliament launched by Grillo’s MPs.

Only time will tell whether the Five Star Movement will disappear from the political scene (after Casaleggio’s death, Di Battista’s departure, and the betrayal of some of their core principles and constituencies, things are looking difficult for Grillo’s people). However, what is certain is that the legacy endures. The M5S has demonstrated the kind of impact that populists who institutionalize themselves can have. The Five Star’s presence in institutions has culminated in a drastic cut in the number of MPs (as well as their salaries), something virtually unprecedented in a large Western democracy. This sets a precedent that some may see as a curtailing of democracy. Instead, it should be understood part and parcel of Italy’s apparently functional “populist democracy.”


(*) AMEDEO VARRIALE is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, UK. He earned a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Politics and International Relations from Kingston University in 2016 and has a Master of Arts from the University of Westminster. His research interests include contemporary populism and nationalism. He is currently participating in a ‘go-to textbook’ project funded by the University of Toronto, where his next publication, “English Nationalism: An Anatomy,” will be available shortly. Varriale has a keen interest in public policy and has been an active voice—through scholarship and journalism—in British public debates over freedom of speech, individual rights, and national identity.


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Footnotes


[1] Those are usually populist parties that oppose neoliberal mainstream mass parties and some of the institutions those actors operate in but are not against democratic principles and necessarily opposed to checks and balances. See Damiani (2016: 13) and works by Schedler (1996) and Abedi (2004).

[2] According to Damiani (2016: 13, 15) radical left parties are somewhat more moderate than extreme left parties given the former (unlike the latter) do not explicitly want to dismantle the democracy per se and have decided to abandon authoritarian and totalitarian objectives. The extreme left is revolutionary not reformist and wishes to overcome the bourgeoise, capitalistic and liberal-democratic system altogether.

[3] See March’s paper “Contemporary Far Left Parties in Europe: From Marxism to the Mainstream?” published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Institute in November 2008.

[4] A complete definition can be found on the website of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). See https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/left-wing-populism/.

[5] See the introduction to Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008) by Albertazzi and McDonnell.

[6] In his chapter in Democracies and the Populist Challenge (2008), co-edited by Mény and Surel, Mair explains that liberal democracy is composed of “two pillars” (the constitutional and the popular), which he juxtaposes in his analysis.

[7] A “recall” is a procedure by which voters from a constituency can legally remove an elected official before her term comes to an end. A small number of countries including the United States have adopted this system. In Italy, it remains unconstitutional. 

[8] Chiara Corbetta and Elisabetta Gualmini used this phrase in their 2013 book on Grillo’s politics to describe the Five Star Movement.

[9] Gianroberto Casaleggio, the movement’s leading idealogue, passed away in 2016. The digital war machine of the movement (not just the blog but the “Rousseau” platform) then passed to his son, Davide Casaleggio.

[10] Favia admitted as much in an interview broadcast on the TV program “Piazzapulita” in September 2012. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oah6vq4QHPY (in Italian). 

[11] Di Maio made this statement on 30 July 2018 whilst commenting on the proposal by the governing coalition to appoint Marcello Foa as president of RAI (the Italian state broadcaster). For the full statement, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ug2FjaPNJ0 (in Italian).

[12] This agreement, among other things, asserts that the Five Star Movement is not a party and not meant to function as one.

[13] Di Maio resigned as political head on 22 January 2020 but remains one of the movement’s leading cabinet ministers.

[14] Eatwell and Goodwin deploy the term in their 2018 book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy to define parties opposed to mass immigration, globalised capitalism, and supra-national institutions like the European Union. Lega is certainly a right-wing party. However—as Mudde (2007) and others have noted—it is hard to label it as “radical/extreme right” (in Elisabeth Carter’s sense of the word) because of its relatively liberal positions on the role of the state, the individual, society, the market economy and commitments to anti-fascism, regionalism and localism. This locates Lega in contradistinction to the “palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” (Griffin, 1995) of the neo-fascists located further on the right.

[15] See, for example, Pratt’s Penal Populism (2006) and Anastasia and Anselmi’s chapter “Penal populism in the multi-populist context of Italy” in Multiple Populisms: Italy as Democracy’s Mirror (2020) edited by Paul Blokker and Manuel Anselmi.

[16] By 2021, the number of MEPs had fallen to ten after some defections to the Greens.

[17] Parties that are not able to form a large EU party grouping end up as non-attached members and have no voting rights in the Conference of Presidents, a key executive organ in the European Parliament.

[18] Paragone was expelled from the party in December 2019 due to his arguments with the leadership and other MPs over their increasingly Europhile turn. He accused the party of having abandoned its manifesto commitments.

[19] In November 2019, Paragone said as much on the TV program “Piazzapulita” while still an M5S MP. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iqx7ijLo2A (in Italian).

[20] Bordignon (2013) and Ceccarini (2013) have adopted this terminology in relation to M5S’s online platform and party activities.

[21] Five Star mayors Chiara Appendino (Turin) and Virginia Raggi (Rome) have been investigated for alleged misconduct in office.

NMR6

NMR: A Nordic neo-Nazi organization with aims of establishing totalitarian rule across Scandinavia

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) rests on this century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism. Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR which aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state, has become the primary force of white power in Sweden and other Nordic countries. 

By Bulent Kenes

Since the recent re-emergence of radical right-wing ideas across Europe (Mudde, 2007: 1), increasing numbers of security authorities warn of increased threats from the radical nationalist milieu. Terrorist attacks by radical nationalist lone wolves have been carried out in Christchurch (New Zealand), Poway and El Paso (USA), Baerum (Norway), and Halle (Germany), along with other attacks, have created a sense of urgency around this growing threat. In August 2019, the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) warned of an increased threat from violent right-wing extremists (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020). According to Säpo, extreme right-wing organisations are the second biggest threat to Sweden after Islamist terrorism (Swedish Security Service, 2018). This warning brought attention to the most dominant extremist actor in Sweden, the national socialist Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7).

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Sweden has had organized Nazi movements since 1924, when the Furugård brothers founded the first Nazi party (Lööw, 2004). During the interwar period, and until the end of World War II (WWII), various Swedish Nazi organizations developed in accordance with their conflicting attitudes toward the German Nazi party. According to Helene Lööw (1999), this led to a state of constant fragmentation of the Swedish Nazi movement, which partly explains why there was never a strong united movement during that time period. In the wake of WWII, the Swedish Nazi movement might have faded away but for the Nordic National Party (Nordiska rikspartiet, NRP), which was founded in 1956. NRP became the institution that restructured the ideas, experiences, and aims of the pre-war and wartime Nazi movements to create contemporary Nazi movements, generally in the form of subcultural groups and parties (Lööw, 1999; 2004; 2015).

By the end of the 1970s, the NRP had adopted right-wing populist ideas. This led to a portion of the movement taking a less radical position on the white race and focusing instead on a culturally racist view aimed at criticizing immigration policy and immigrants. When the group split, a new organization emerged, called Keep Sweden Swedish (Bevara Sverige Svenskt, BSS) (Lööw, 1999). This created more polarization within the milieu and contributed to the construction of two fractions: one that remained faithful to the Nazi ideology and another that looked for support by addressing immigration issues. During the 1980s and 1990s, the right-wing movement was formed through both parliamentary aspirations and more violent revolutionary logic, as well as formal and informal groups, parties, and subcultural milieus (Lööw, 2015). 

From the early 1990s onwards, older national socialist organizations such as NRP, the New Swedish Movement (Nysvenska Rörelsen), and Sweden’s Nationalist Federation (Sveriges Nationella Förbund) started dissolving and were ultimately replaced by smaller underground groups and networks such as Vitt Arisk Motstånd (White Aryan Resistance, VAM), Nationalist Alliance (Nationella Alliansen), Aryan Brotherhood (Ariska Brödraskapet), and Combat 18 (Lööw, 1995). These groups differed from the NRP, which had roots back to the Swedish National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nationalsocialistiska abetarepartiet) of the 1930s (Kølvraa, 2019). Despite the dissolution of the NRP, during the 1980s it became the link between interwar National Socialism and a new generation of activists influenced by British and American White Power movements (Lundström, 2016; Hirvonen, 2013).

The Founders of NMR Came from Three Nazi Groups

Historically, Sweden has long been a global epicentre for White Supremacist activism and “intellectualism,” fuelled by an once world-leading White Power music industry in the 1990s (Teitelbaum & Lundström, 2017) and an extensive publishing industry (Lööw, 1999). With the recent rise in the visibility of extreme and openly violent groups and activities, Sweden offers a particularly interesting window into the media the media strategies and practices of violent extremists within liberal democracies—and why we should take this media seriously (Askanius, 2021a).

During the 1990s, the Nazi movement reconstructed itself and developed new exchange forums by adapting to the Internet and social media—moves that benefited a movement that struggled to gain visibility in more traditional public forums (Lööw, 2015). To attract members and sympathizers, the movement has used public demonstrations and local town rallies but also an intensified presence on social media (Kaati, 2017). By the beginning of 2010—and until 2013—there was small but significant growth in the Nazi movement’s followers, activities, and visibility. Two Nazi parties dominated the scene: The Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) and the NMR. Since 2015, the NMR, the only party remaining, has been the main hub for Nordic Nazi ideas (Lööw, 2015).

Klas Lund.

The founders of NMR came from three Nazi groups—VAM, the newspaper Folktribunen (The People’s Tribune), and the National Youth (Mattsson, 2018). The establishment of the NMR (then known as the Swedish Resistance Movement, or the Svensk motståndsrörelsen, SMR) was announced in the third issue of the Folktribunen in December 1997. The Nazi network Nordland, which has since closed down, was also included under the SMR (Harne, 2002)Folktribunen’s editor-in-chief, and one of NMR’s founders, was Klas Lund, who headed the organization for 18 years, between 1997 and 2015 (Ravndal, 2019). From 1997 to 2002, the Folktribunen was SMR’s communication channel, a place to communicate the organization’s positions and activities (Mattsson, 2018).

Apart from his lengthy leadership term, Lund’s played a role a series of dramatic events that preceded NMR’s establishment. Lund began his activist career as a militant skinhead, a form of militancy the NMR normally distances itself from because in an effort to emphasize political struggle over subcultural practices. In 1986, when Lund was 18 years old, he and a group of fellow skinheads beat and kicked to death a young man who had allegedly attempted to stop them from harassing young immigrants at a beach in southern Stockholm. Lund and two other skinheads were convicted of murder and received eight-year prison sentences. Lund’s sentence was later reduced to four years, and he was released after only two years (Ravndal, 2019). When he served his sentence, he became a leading figure in VAM which took its name from the American organization White Aryan Resistance, a group that carried out robberies and hoped to fund a “white revolution” (Hjälte & Kenny, 2011).  (Expo, 2019).

Lund and his associates carried out several bank robberies to finance their activities and to prepare for an armed revolution. In this endeavour, Lund’s VAM was inspired by another American group, The Order (Brüder Schweigen). While amateurish, VAM was certainly violent (Hjälte & Kenny,2011); however, one of these robberies landed the perpetrators in prison (Lööw, 2009; Strømmen, 2017) again. While in prison, Lund had plenty of time to contemplate the means that would be most effective at generating a revolutionary outcome. He arrived at the conclusion that terrorism carried out by loosely organized leaderless networks might not be so effective. Rather, a strong hierarchical organization with the long-term ambition of radicalizing people through steadfast propaganda and street activism was a better alternative. These thoughts were further developed in Folktribunen, which Lund created after his second release from prison (Ravndal, 2019). 

Folktribunen included material on Corneliu Codreanu, the founder and charismatic leader of the Iron Guard, an ultra-nationalist and violently antisemitic organization established in Romania in 1927. During the interwar period, Codreanu ran the violent underground fascist terrorist group, St. Michael’s Legionnaires—better known as the Iron Guard. As a Christian fanatic, Codreanu hated democracy and dreamed of a nation ruled by an elite—a country like a religious sect. The new society required a “new man,” and the Iron Guard would take the lead in the revolution. Codreanu’s organization was guilty of political assassinations and pogroms against, above all, Jews. Codreanu was imprisoned and executed in 1938 after his organization responded to his prison sentence with more assassinations (Poohl, 2014). 

In 1995, a group of young people in Bromma, an upscale Stockholm suburb, founded an organization called Independent Young Nationalists (Oberoende Unga Nationalister) (Poohl, 2014). At the time, racist skinheads and white power music dominated the Swedish extreme right. As Daniel Poohl of the Swedish anti-extremist magazine Expo writes, the young ultranationalists from Bromma wanted to be something different. They didn’t allow drugs. They didn’t welcome skinhead hooligans. They wanted to be more serious (Strømmen, 2017). In 1997, Erik Hägglund was chosen to lead the organization, which had already changed its name to National Youth (Nationell Ungdom). Hägglund had previously been active in a fascist group called Riksfronten and under his leadership, Nationell Ungdom quickly radicalized. Ideas on “democratic nationalism” were replaced by revolutionary racism (Poohl, 2014; Expo/Svartvitt, 1999).

Out of Folktribunen, the new organization SMR was born. It was meant to be an elitist organization, with a strong focus on loyalty, discipline, and courage. The ethos was: “Weaklings and cowards have no place with us. No one shall avoid his manly duties.” Nationell Ungdom was to continue as the youth organization of the SMR (Poohl, 2014). This strategic shift has been overlooked by several observers who portray SMR as terrorists (Gudmundson, 2008). One reason could be that SMR does not reject extreme measures, including terrorism, in some distant future. A key element of their strategy is thus to use propaganda to prepare themselves and the Nordic people for a future racial war that is, in their minds, inevitable (SRM, 2009).

The extreme right-wing propaganda changed character over time; in 2009, the SMR launched an online campaign against paedophiles and rapists (Lööw, 2015: 66). At the same time, SMR members practised a sort of low-scale psychological warfare, where subtle threats were used to scare or silence their enemies. They also actively prepared for and sought out violent confrontations with the police and political opponents (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2003, the organization started publishing a new magazine, Nationelt Motstånd (National Resistance). Cooperation with Norwegian neo-Nazis led to a Norwegian branch of the organization, called Nasjonal Ungdom, being established the same year (Kragh & Lindberg, 2003; Expo, 2003). However, the Norwegian group faltered within a couple of years. In an article in Nationelt Motstånd, Klas Lund made it clear that the organization did not seek to recruit “as many as possible,” but rather wanted to build “an inner core of fanatic activists who can increasingly bring the national message out to the masses” (Poohl, 2014). Since 2003, the SMR has developed as an openly National Socialist organization following an “elitist” approach to membership. In addition to a traditional antisemitic focus, the organization based its ideology on openly racist anti-immigrant views (Strømmen, 2017).  

In 2016, the organisation changed its name to NMR and declared, together with associate organisations in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, that now addresses matters concerning all of Scandinavia—specifically protecting the Aryan race (Mattson, 2018).

In its current shape, NMR rests on an almost century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism (Lööw, 2015).Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR has become the primary force of white power in Sweden (Mattsson, 2018). However, “white power” is not a term that the NMR uses to denote their movement—that is a term used by their enemies. Therefore, representatives of the NMR categorically claim in interviews that they do not belong to any “white power world” nor are they “Nazis” (Öberg, 2016). 

The relatively civil discourse in NMR’s cultural productions also aims to seed elements of neo-Nazi ideology into the more acceptable anti-immigration rhetoric successfully used in the public domain by right-wing populist parties (Krzyżanowski, 2020). Thus, NMR have become co-producers of what Krzyżanowski (2020: 505) has dubbed “borderline discourse,” which merges uncivil (hate speech, antisemitism, and unmitigated racism) with civil discourse borrowed from the ideas of right-wing populism. In a sense, neo-Nazi groups today, and extremist actors more generally, dovetail on a broader cultural trend of an increasing symbiosis of popular media, political punditry, and persuasion. Part of this hybridity is about the convergence of the mainstream and extreme at the level of actual content on the platform (Askanius, 2021a).

NMR Aims to Overthrow the Democratic Order in the Nordic Region 

NMR’s own cultural productions are also characterised by hybridity and a play with genre conventions. A convergence of popular culture and entertainment with political and news discourse is apparent. At the level of content and aesthetics, the extreme blends with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. These strategies continue the long history of “political mash-up” in protest movements’ media practices (Askanius, 2013) and of fascist movements aestheticizing politics (Ekman, 2014). To illustrate how neo-Nazis attempt to package their ideology in ways that shield it from immediate public condemnation, Kølvraa (2019) describes how NMR replaced swastikas and World War II imagery with symbols from Norse paganism and Viking iconography to make the ideology more palatable in a Swedish and wider Nordic context. The tactic served to construct a two-faced dynamic to Nazism, where a seemingly civil, respectable, and serious side masked a violent and uncivil side, much like the dissonance we see in NMR’s communication strategies seeking to normalise neo-Nazi discourse in Sweden (Askanius, 2021a).

Thus, the cultural expressions of NMR reinforce a value system that harmonises with the neo-Nazi programme. In their attempts to create a new and distinctly Nordic “Nazism light,” entertainment and culture work as key vehicles in conveying the story of “white genocide” and the impending race wars in a persuasive and entertaining manner (Askanius, 2021a). In this sense, NMR adopted some of the same normalisation strategies that seem to have worked for more mainstream far-right populist parties across Europe: re-packaging, softening rhetoric, and getting rid of or toning down overt hate speech and symbols associated with traditional fascism (Wodak, 2013).  Therefore, to understand its contemporary reality, NMR’s Nazism must be recognized as something more than simply brutality, genocide, destruction, and war (Darwish, 2018: 4).

In Sweden, recent years have seen the National Socialist right mount public demonstrations and other “offline” activities with increasing numbers. Whereas earlier it was often noted that the extreme right secured media attention and impact through violence (Kimmel, 2007), and that such organizations usually preferred the relative anonymity of online propaganda (Askanius & Mylonas, 2015: 58); now the NMR’s membership—and their willingness to demonstrate in public—is increasing. Indeed, recent years saw a noticeable rise in activities (Eastman, 2017), and a third of active members in 2015 were new recruits (Kølvraa, 2019). At one march in Stockholm, in November 2016, some reports counted 600 NMR participants (Pasha-Robinson, 2016). As such, the NMR and its online media outlet Nordfront.se are today the central National Socialist voice on the Swedish extreme right—and possibly the dominant platform for such ideas in Scandinavia as a whole (Laclau, 2005, 1990).

As a neo-Nazi organization, NMR aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020; Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In October 2014, Lund declared that a parliamentary branch of the movement would be formed, although this did not mean that the (then) SMR would become less radical. Nor did it mean that the SMR had transformed into a democratic party. Choosing to operate within the parliamentary system does not necessarily mean accepting it (Lööw, 2020: 86). The NMR has not entered the national level of government, but they entered several local governments around Sweden from 2014-2018 (Skoglund, 2017; Thomsen, 2018). The organization also made an attempt at a parliamentary breakthrough; however, it only received several municipal mandates after being added to Sweden Democrats’ (SD) lists. Despite this, the 2018 election saw an increase in both the NMR’s level of activity and their visibility in the Swedish political discourse (Blomberg & Stier, 2019).

After the 2018 election, the breakaway organization Nordic Strength (Nordisk styrka) was formed in August 2019, partly as a reaction to the failed parliamentary initiative (Lodenius, 2020: 129). Leading NMR activists, including Klas Lund, founded Nordic Strength (Askanius, 2021a), which is a distinctly elite organization, a return to the form of organization that was dominant before the NMR was created—that is, a group that does not accept everyone as a member (Lööw, 2020: 85). The purpose of Nordic Strength is stated as: “To create a new generation of strong and conscious Nordic people, and our ambition to create a strong and combative ideology, culture, community and organization.” Nordic Strength is also present in Norway and Denmark (Forwald, 2019).

NMR As a Fully-fledged National Socialist Organization

The NMR explicitly rejects democratic rule and envisions a more authoritarian system, headed by strong and competent National Socialist “senators” (Lund, 2010). It also promotes a racist and antisemitic doctrine. This is a neo-Nazi organization aimed at establishing a national revolution and totalitarian rule (Mattson & Johansson, 2018). While many emergent neo-fascist organizations across Europe distance themselves from National Socialism, the NMR remains a fully-fledged national socialist organization. Race theory is thus an inherent part of their ideology—and the alleged international Jewish elite remains their main enemy (Ravndal, 2018).

National Socialist and racist groups are sometimes introduced under the broader term “right-wing extremists.” National socialism’s main ideological components are nationalism, racism, “xenophobia,” a strong state, and anti-democratic notions (Lööw, 2020: 87-88). Although NMR can be characterized as a National Socialist organization, it did not use this label during its early years, for strategic reasons, and referred to its activists as “patriots.” In 2006, however, the NMR leadership decided to “come out of the closet” and be open about their National Socialist foundations. Behind this toxic ideology lay deeper ideas such as anti-modernism, anti-liberalism, collectivism, communitarianism, and the idea that people’s identities and meanings are closely tied to the territories, peoples, and cultures to which they naturally “belong” (Ravndal, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in addition to Adolf Hitler, the NMR cites the Danish Nazi ideologue Povl Riis-Knudsen as an important source of inspiration. Biological racism is the explicit foundation of the party’s policy. Conspiracy theories and antisemitism are also central to their ideology. NMR praises Hitler and Nazi Germany but believes that their own ideology is a “new policy for a new era.” It agitates against the democratic state, immigration, and multiculturalism, as well as against “Zionism” and “globalism” (a code for Jews), capitalism, communism, feminism, and the LGBTQ movement. One of the party’s explicit goals is to deport “the majority of all those who are not ethnic northern Europeans or of closely related peoples” from the Nordic countries. NMR also directs propaganda against trade unions, whose members they want to attract as sympathizers (Expo, 2019).

Since NMR believes that the Nordic peoples are racially and ethnically related (Ravndal, 2018), it has merged the core National Socialist values with a political strategy of a united Nordic region under authoritarian leadership, all in an effort to conserve the Nordic race and culture (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). The concept of “ethnopluralism” is sometimes used to describe this idea—that people of different ethnic and territorial backgrounds should co-exist separately rather than being mixed, in order to preserve their unique qualities and collective identities (Ravndal, 2019). It seeks to preserve national identities by repatriating all or most people of foreign descent. Finally, they seek to replace the European Union—which they see as a liberal/capitalist/globalist/technocratic threat to the authentic European identity—with an autonomous European geopolitical alliance. Notably, this alliance should be detached from the current economic, cultural, and military grip of the US, and perhaps seek alliances with Russia (Ravndal, 2019).

Reinventing Vikings For Nordic Consumption

Besides an obsession with Jews and Muslims, religion does not occupy much space in the ideological view of the NMR. The party does not claim to support religious freedom in their political manifesto. They also draw on pagan myths and symbols in some of their propaganda—specifically, on Norse mythology. For example, their main symbol is constituted by an overlay of the Tiwaz/Tyr rune, named after the warrior god Tyr, and the Yngvi/Ing rune, named after the Yngling lineage, the oldest known Scandinavian dynasty (Ravndal, 2019). However, in much of the NMR’s more recent cultural productions, the Vikings have gone soft (Askanius, 2021a). At the core of this practice, through which boundaries are increasingly blurred, is an aspiration to make uncivil discourse and ideology appear more civil and the spectacular more mundane—and to tell the story of a new “sanitised version of Nazism that would normalise the Hitler state in the minds of contemporaries” (Blee, 2007: 15). Vikings are no novelty in the National Socialist imagination. They were extensively present in Third Reich propaganda (Lauridsen, 1995). The image of the Viking serves as the lynchpin of a distinctly Nordic reiteration of National Socialist ideology as articulated by NMR (Kølvraa, 2019).

Christoffer Kølvraa argues that the Viking becomes an “empty signifier”(Laclau, 1996), serving three distinct purposes in the construction of a cultural imaginary suitable for a Nordic National Socialism. First, it serves to signify the National Socialist idea of a “Nordic race” and, in that sense, implicitly links this ideology to a specifically Nordic historical-cultural space. Second, it serves to differentiate the pan-Nordic racial project of the NMR from a wider European far-right populist agenda of defending European Christian civilization. Third, it serves to symbolize a classic National Socialist body ideal of hyper-masculinity and homo-social community in a distinctly Nordic code (Kølvraa, 2019).

Perhaps the most obvious function of Viking heritage in the cultural imagination of the NMR is simply as a way of making National Socialism less of a “German” ideology and reorientating it towards a Nordic cultural-historical context. Indeed, the NMR certainly addresses its audience as modern-day Vikings (Kølvraa, 2019). The Nordfront.se site sees it as a core task to keep the audience updated on “all things Viking.” It offers lists of events with Viking or mediaeval themes, including Viking markets, re-enactments of Viking battles, and upcoming Viking rituals, festivals, and commemorative dates (Holmqvist, 2017; Editorial, 2017).

At the textual level, Viking heritage is often only alluded to in passing, such as when it is claimed: “Our forefathers knew the secret of the blood. They understood it so well, both regarding animals and people, that they did what they could to prevent mixing the Nordic-Germanic (Aryan) race with the other races of the earth” (Söderman, 2007). The NMR also distances itself from the far and populist right by adopting a severely critical attitude towards Christianity (Gardell, 2014: 131).) The popularity of notions of “Christian Europe” can be linked to the fact that it easily supports the construction of a violent antagonism towards Islam or a “clash” between Islam and European/western civilization. Furthermore, the NMR indulges itself at times by imagining the danger of what has been called “Eurabia”: the supposed grand strategy behind a Muslim takeover of the European continent (Carr, 2006). However, as a rule, the organization rejects the valorisation of Christian values and heritage. In fact, in most cases, the NMR’s attitude toward Christianity is to view it as a foreign, southern, and ultimately Jewish idea, unduly and forcibly imposed on their Viking ancestors with vast, ever-present detrimental consequences (Söderman, 2008).

“The religion of the Norse or German gods and associated forms of paganism are particularly popular among skinheads, precisely because of their violent, warrior ethos. Skinzines, and especially the Blood & Honour magazine, frequently point out that Odinism is a religion of warriors, whereas despised Christianity is presented in Nietzschean terms as a religion of slaves” (Pollard, 2016: 409). NMR rejects Christianity, which is considered “a kind of spiritual AIDS that has destroyed our natural immunity to non-biological thinking (Lodenius, 2020). It is a contagious mental illness that must be fought by all means” (Nationalsocialismen, 2011). With regard to the NMR’s view of religious freedom, all religions must adapt to National Socialism and must not run counter to its ideology and thus religious practice should be relegated to the private sphere (Redaktionen, 2016).

According to Kølvraa (2019), even when the Vikings are used as a means to mark religious difference, they function more as an empty signifier than as an actual counterpoint or alternative. It is not about becoming Vikings but about establishing a cultural imaginary in which National Socialism is linked, juxtaposed, and repackaged in Viking iconography for Nordic consumption. Viking heritage is central to the cultural imaginary of these modern Scandinavian National Socialists due to its ability to link the internal elements of their communal ideal: an ideal of a pure Nordic racial community undisturbed by foreign influences, Christian weakness, and degenerate modernity; a community shaped by an embedded hyper-masculinity lived out in homosocial interactions saturated with struggle, aggression, and the will to supremacy (Kølvraa, 2019).

NMR has used propaganda and direct action to “awaken” the people and prepare them for the upcoming “race war.” This is in line with the general National Socialist emphasis on action rather than on intellectualism (Ravndal, 2019). In many ways, NMR and the alt-right share the same destructive narrative. Common messages from both feature racial separatism, ethnopluralism, and conspiratorial notions of an impending societal collapse, stoking fears that “the people” and “culture” are about to be exterminated by external enemies. The external enemy is embodied by overseas immigration, which is supposedly orchestrated by an “elite” consisting of politicians, the media, and globalists (Jews). Not infrequently, antisemitic conspiracy theories also occur in connection with this notion. NMR actors also consider themselves to be waging “a cultural war” in order to preserve Swedish identity (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 8). NMR is anti-democratic and rejects global humanitarian rights. The party believes violence is necessary and legitimate to achieve its goals. In such a case, “racial traitors” and people of the “wrong race” will be exterminated, brought to justice, or deported (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20).

NMR has hopes to start a revolution through an extra-parliamentary struggle. They are opposed to the ruling government but do not engage in elections (Ravndal, 2019: 11-12). On NMR’s official website, Nordfront, the party claims a National Socialist stance in the “Nine Points” that make up their policy (Hellenstierna, 2019). These points are essential to their struggle and will be dictate the changes they make when they supposedly seize power from “the hostile forces that now rule the Nordic peoples” (Nordfront Policy A, 2015). The nine points include: 

  • Immediately stopping mass immigration;
  • As soon as possible, initiating the repatriation of the majority of all non-Northern Europeans or closely related peoples; 
  • By all means available, seek to regain power from “the global Zionist elite which economically and militarily occupy most of our world”; 
  • Jointly with the other Nordic countries create a Nordic self-sufficient state with a common defence force, common currency and central bank, and common horizontal laws and regulations. This also means immediate withdrawal from the European Union and any similar hostile associations; 
  • The media should be owned by citizens of the new Nordic region. Foreign as well as domestic media acting against people in a hostile manner will be prohibited; and
  • A public tribunal must be established with the aim of examining the difficult cases of treason (Redaktionen Nordfront, 2015).

NMR’s primary goal is to overthrow the Scandinavian democracies and create a Nazi state under NMR leadership. Three core themes in NMR’s ideology are, 1) the competition between the races; 2) antisemitism, with Jewish conspiracies at the centre (Immigration to Sweden and other Nordic countries will not be the main problem for NMR, but a by-product of the Jewish conspiracy); and 3) gender roles: for the battle ahead, men and women must have their strict gender roles. Men are supposed to be warriors and provide physical protection while women are supposed to stay home and reproduce and raise children. Less strict gender roles have resulted in “mixed races” and thus the “end of the race.” Feminist and LGBTQ movements are, therefore, not accepted and often threatened by NMR (Blomgren, 2020; Mattsson, 2018; Ranstorp, Ahlin, & Normark, 2020).

In NMR’s ideological narrative, thus, the central problem at the core of the conflict is construed as mass immigration and multiculturalism, spearheaded by Zionism and a feminised, degenerated Western culture. This problem poses a threat to a community—an “us,” meaning the white race, true Swedes, and the Nordic people—by a perpetrator, a “them” consisting of caricatured enemies including “racial strangers,” Jews, enemies of the people, or alternatively, Sweden-haters, which includes politicians, journalists, certain public intellectuals, feminists, and so forth. Against this backdrop, NMR proposes a “final solution”— namely, the deportation of all “racial strangers” and a race war, with the end result being Sweden as “white sanctuary,” enforced by a future pan-Nordic state founded on national socialism (Askanius, 2021a).

Moreover, the NMR propagates the superiority of the white race, fights for the “survival of the Nordic race,” and wants to bring about a revolution through an armed takeover (Edsenius & Jönsson, 2018). The party wants democracy to be “replaced by an elitist government with a strong leader at the top” (TT, 2017). In connection with this, parties must be abolished and citizenship in Sweden must be based on racial biology. A racial biology institute will “racially assess” the population of individuals born after 1975 and those who do not belong to the Aryan race will be forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin. Those born before 1975 could lose their citizenship if they were “convicted of anti-popular activities.” NMR’s leaders estimate that approximately 2 million “racial strangers” in Sweden would be sent back to their countries of origin, as well as another million people from the other Nordic countries (Lodenius, 2020).

According to the NMR, the entire survival and existence of the “white race” is at stake due to low birth rates combined with mass immigration of non-whites in “a low-intensity war of extermination against whites.” The Nordic countries are portrayed as occupied and the survival of the people a battle for life and death in a race war. The very image of the enemy being painted is dark and dystopian and is often described in dehumanizing terms as the “System.” The System includes the government and authorities, while politicians are referred to as “criminals.” The System has a vicious plan against the “people,” who are brainwashed and repressed by constant reprisals from the government and authorities. The System’s repression of NMR is enormous. NMR repeatedly uses enemy terms such as “racial stranger,” “criminal,” “traitor,” etc. NMR often weaves together a conspiratorial worldview of a “Jewish-controlled” elite of “globalists,” “big banks,” and “capitalists” who oppose and oppress the “people” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR wants to establish a “people’s court” that will “try the difficult cases of treason” (Redaktionen, 2015). “Traitors” will be brought before the people’s court and hung from lampposts. NMR also advocates the reintroduction of the death penalty to be imposed for serious crimes (Lodenius, 2020). Media must be banned if they go against NMR’s ideals. NMR’s idea of ​​freedom of expression is to tear up laws against incitement against ethnic groups and instead ban “anti-popular propaganda” which includes media that spreads “subversive and anti-popular messages” (Redaktionen, 2018a).

NMR Views World Through Prism of Antisemitism

The NMR’s worldview is based on antisemitic conspiracy theories, including that Jews promote immigration, egalitarianism, and racial mixing in order to destroy the white race (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20). According to this world view, no political achievements have any real value until the alleged Jewish world conspiracy is crushed. While the rest of the far-right is inspired by new ideological influences, the NMR has chosen to stick to its Nazi convictions and Hitler’s principles, including all the elements of antisemitism. The party claims it wants to “take back power over our country from the globalists who rule us.” “Globalists” is one of many code words for the alleged Jewish international conspiracy (Poohl, 2018). 

Antisemitism is at the heart of the National Socialist ideology. Without antisemitism, National Socialism does not exist. According to Nazis, the notion of history is a struggle between Jews and “Aryans.” National Socialists often use terms such as “Jewish mentality” and “spiritual Jews.” These terms were synonymous with the Nazis’ political enemies, who were considered poisoned by the “Jewish mentality and morality” and who “sold their souls to the Jews” (Lööw, 2020: 89). Jews are at the top of the NMR’s enemy list; Nazis hate Jews more than they hate Muslims—they believe Jews invented the Muslims (Pascalidou, 2017). 

Although the NMR is concerned with challenges posed by growing Muslim populations in Europe, they always make sure to remind themselves and others that the real cause of this “Muslim invasion” is the Jews, who have deliberately masterminded it in order to weaken the European peoples and nations for their own benefit (Lund, 2004). According to NMR, “the tentacles of Zionism” are everywhere, seen in a culture war which seeks to “destroy the indigenous European cultures and replace them with Americanized anti-culture” (Lund, 2008).

Nevertheless, NMR has recently changed its rhetoric and started use some indirect or coded words. In that rhetoric, individuals who are said to represent the imagined Jewish power are transformed into traitors. The previous terms, like “racial traitors” and “Jewish lackeys,” have been replaced simply with “traitors” (Lööw, 2019). NMR sees “our people” as being betrayed and replaced through marriage and migration—and sees these as conscious strategies to replace the “Nordic race” with a new people. According to this conspiracy theory, Europe’s population will be replaced through the migration of Muslims, which is actually a Jewish plot (Lööw, 2020). Immigration to Sweden and the Nordic countries is by-product of the Jewish conspiracy—a conspiracy that is manifested in the form of, among other things, socialism, capitalism, and humanism (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 46). According to the NMR,  Jews are even behind recent terrorist attacks—and the police are supposedly “Zionist slaves” (Pascalidou, 2017).

The NMR also practises Holocaust denialism. In connection with memorial days linked to the Holocaust, NMR has organized demonstrations and various actions, in an effort to burden these dates with a different meaning (Lööw, 2020: 93). Nordfront’s editor-in-chief Fredrik Vejdelands denied the Holocaust during his closing speech in the Göta Court of Appeal (Redaktionen, 2015).

In accordance with the NMR’s worldview, Israel is the centre of a Zionist world power that exercises a destructive influence on much of the world, including Sweden. According to the NMR, Israel can be seen as the exact opposite of a National Socialist state: unnaturally created through mass immigration; built on a national, historical and religious lie and economic parasitism; a centre for espionage and global organized crime; etc. According to the NMR, Israel is, in practice, an extremist nationalist military base under the control of “international financial Judaism,” and, as such, it poses a threat to the rest of humanity. Naturally, the NMR sympathizes with the Palestinians and their struggle for a free Palestinian state (Editorial, 2012). With a focus on historical revisionism about the Holocaust (Lööw, 2019), NMR’s antisemitism is so strong that they congratulated radical Islamist HAMAS in 2006, just because the organisation stated in its statutes that it wants to destroy Israel (Redaktionen, 2006).

Hierarchically Organized with Militant and Fanatic Members

NMR’s May 1 demonstrations in Ludvika and Kungälv on May 1, 2019.

NMR is hierarchically organized and militant (Ravndal, 2018). Its colours are green, white and black. Its main symbol is the tyrruna, which was used Nazi Germany during WWII (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). NMR’s model was inspired by the Romanian Iron Guard and has become a collection of fanatics (Poohl, 2014). 

The organization is divided into so-called “nests” (nästen, a term borrowed from the Iron Guard), each with its own leadership and structure (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden is divided into seven nests, and they are controlled by operational chiefs directly handling the local activist groups—named fighting groups—each with no more than ten members. One nest can have several combat groups (Expo, 2020; Mattson & Johansson, 2018). In addition, there is a national council (Riksrådet) as well as a Nordic council (Nordenrådet) comprising members from the various national branches (Ravndal, 2019).  

According to its Handbook for Activists, the NMR is “not a democratic organization where individuals gain positions of responsibility through elections or majority rule. Instead, it is a strictly hierarchically structured organization where all positions of responsibility are filled according to competence, loyalty and willingness to sacrifice” (Bjørgo, 2018). For the people who are part of the combat groups, NMR requires “regular activism, physical training and demonstration of willingness to sacrifice, and that members must be public with who they are” (Lindberg, 2019).

At the top of the hierarchy is the leader of the entire organization, currently Simon Lindberg. Besides these top positions, there are several other prestigious positions, such as operational leader, parliamentary leader, media spokesperson, editor-in-chief, news editor, head of radio broadcasting etc (Ravndal, 2019). Because the NMR envisions an actual take-over of the government, it needs a hierarchical organization on stand-by for when this critical moment arrives (Ravndal, 2019).

Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR underwent a reorganisation under new leadership and changed its name from the SMR to the NMR, following the establishment of associated divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark. NMR refers to this period as the “‘coming out party’ of national socialism” in Scandinavia and to Sweden as the new administrative centre and power hub of a future pan-Nordic state (Askanius, 2021a). Thus, NMR has shifted from being a closed subcultural group to trying to reach a wider audience. The organization has moved away from its subcultural roots and developed into movement focused more on political outreach (Mattson & Johansson, 2018).

The NMR has three levels of membership and strict criteria for joining. Full membership is restricted to activists willing to be publicly associated with the organization; affiliates are formal members whose involvement is on a more voluntary basis; supporting members provide financial support only and may remain anonymous. To become a full member, one has to dedicate him/herself fully to the organization and its day-to-day struggle (Ravndal, 2019). NMR recruits, educates, and trains activists in a hierarchical system, with the hope that violence and advocacy will create a spiritual and physical elite (Expo, 2020). Members practice martial arts in order to stay healthy, build confidence, and prepare physically and mentally for any type of threat (Holm, 2005). 

Some NMR members have a military past (Sveriges Radio, 2014) while others arm themselves with weapons when they move outdoors (Nerikes Allehanda, 2014). According to former NMR leader Lund, activists should be prepared to use force. “The practice of martial arts fulfils several tasks, it helps to maintain discipline within the organization while it [provides] physical education … It creates a powerful cadre of members who grow powerful and aggressive … This is necessary to create a fighting organization” (Poohl, 2014). 

On the other hand, external activities constitute the groups’ interaction with the public, and their primary function is to convey the group’s political message to larger audiences, sometimes but not always through spectacular and creative stunts, or through shocking behaviour. By tracing these actions, one can see that the NMR creates a pattern in which the same types of activity are repeated over and over again (Ravndal, 2019). The members are secular and do not engage in religion per se (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). Members at the highest level of activism are the ones that create the so-called “combat groups” (Mattsson, 2018).

As an “elite” organisation, the NMR has never aspired to fast growth but rather has been careful about recruiting what it sees as the “right” kind of person, meaning those who are fully dedicated, action oriented, and never question the organization’s radical stances. Thus, NMR members are expected to embrace everything the organization stands for, including conspiracy theories about Jewish elites and homosexuality being an unnatural and confused state of mind. This form of militancy borders on fanaticism, i.e., on an uncritical ideological devotion. In fact, NMR activists proudly present themselves as fanatics in the vein of prominent National Socialists from the Third Reich, such as SS troops (Ravndal, 2019). 

NMR members are provided with detailed routines and instructions for how to live life as a member. Each activity is given points according to an incomprehensible logic. The points must then be reported to the superior and become an effective control mechanism for the group’s management. There are rules for how members should address each other depending on rank, instructions for who should sit where during lectures, how to present a case during a meeting, and how to eat, sleep, and march (Poohl, 2014). Tattoos on the hands and head, piercings, alcohol and drug abuse, or mental illness are not accepted. There is also a strict duty of confidentiality within the organization and all information that is not public is classified. Revealing this type of information counts as a “betrayal” (Lodenius, 2020).

In terms of clothing and lifestyle, members are encouraged not to wear flashy or expensive clothes but rather clothes that signal their political views. They are also encouraged to wear comfortable clothes appropriate for street fighting. NMR’s code of honour requires members to keep silent about the organization’s inner life, to remain loyal and humble, to show good camaraderie, to be disciplined and truthful, and to exercise and be prepared for fighting (Lund, 2010).

While the Swedish NMR branch currently claims a few hundred members, there are fewer than a hundred members in Finland—and fewer than 50 in Norway (Ravndal, 2019). In recent years, NMR has tried to attract more supporters and for a while, more people joined each new demonstration. However, the trend has reversed recently. In 2018, 350 people gathered at a Nazi demonstration in Ludvika. At the same time, 140 people marched in Boden—around 500 people in total. In 2019, similar marches only featured around 400 people in total (Poohl et al, 2019). According to Lööw (2015), NMR remains a relatively small organization, with estimates suggesting it has fewer than 1000 members.

An alleged coup attempt led to a split in the NMR in 2019. Former leader Lund left NMR and started a new group, Nordic Strength, which demands a higher degree of radicalism and fanaticism. More hard-line activists believe that NMR has become less radical during recent years, in attempts to broaden and attract more members. Before the 2018 elections, NMR described its ambition to become a popular movement. After the fiasco of the election, dissatisfaction has simmered in parts of the party, a group often described as NMR’s “spearhead” or “core activists” (Fröjd, 2019). 

Though Nordic Strength appears to be a somewhat more radical organization (Leman, 2018; Fröjd, 2019), so far, it has not made any major imprints. Although Nordic Strength can carry out individual acts of violence, the organization is actually restrained, as they have an aging leadership, a small number of members, and limited financial resources (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481). 

As with other far-right extremist organisations, NMR is more attractive to men and boys. The ideological background is conservative and against equality, gender equality and liberalism, thereby making it harder for women and girls to identify with the organisation (Kimmel 2007; Ekman 2014). NMR members also tend to have similar backgrounds. Some had parents who drank, others had parents who fought at home (Pascalidou, 2017).

The organization was built on the idea of the trinity of people, family, and the homeland. It is based on the heterosexual core family, and if the core family is threatened, so is the future of the motherland (Blomgren, 2020). According to the NMR and other National Socialists, man and woman have different biological and spiritual conditions. These pre-given conditions form the basis for a division of society into a male and a female sphere. The man and the woman must complement but not replace each other. NMR members see women as wives and mothers (Lööw, 2020: 96). 

NMR is against feminism and for strong traditional gender roles that idealize the woman’s role, including giving birth, raising children and taking care of household chores (Lodenius, 2020). At the same time, they are very strongly against homosexuality—or the “homosexual lobby,” as they call itNMR members have participated in violent protests aimed at Pride parades, where NMR members hold up banners with messages such as, “Crush the gay lobby” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR’s International Links

The leadership within NMR has been inspired by various international and ideological role models. SMR/NMR’s founder Lund was previously the leader of the VAM, which was inspired by the American neo-Nazi organization White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and Robert Mathews, the founder of the white power group The Order. Richard Scutari of The Order (Bruders Schweigen) was also linked to NMR via Esa Henrik Holappa, the founder of the Finnish Resistance Movement (FRM) (Redaktionen, 2011). 

Other NMR leaders have also had close contact with American role models. Magnus Söderman was a member of the Aryan Nations under the leadership of its founder Richard Butler (Redaktionen, 2009). The Aryan Resistance Movement leader David Lane also knew Söderman, who worked to translate and disseminate Lane’s ideas. According to his own statement, Söderman also lived with The Order in the US (Söderman, 2007a). NMR/SMR was also inspired by William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance and author of the books The Turner Diaries and Hunter (Lodenius, 2020).

Over the years, SMR/NMR have developed extensive international connections outside the Nordic region. On the website patriot.nu, in 2002, SMR linked to its foreign organizations: the National Alliance, the German NPD, the Russian National Unity, and the Italian Forza Nuova (Lodenius, 2020). A very active exchange is taking place, including study visits to Germany and Hungary and participation in National Socialist demonstrations. For example, the NMR regularly participates in the annual Lukov March in Bulgaria, along with other foreign National Socialists. In 2013, information was published that members of the SMR had undergone paramilitary training with a Nazi group in Hungary (Holmberg, 2017). NMR has developed particularly good relations with the German Die Dritte Weg, the Italian Casa Pound, the Hungarian Legio Hungaria, the Greek Golden Dawn, and the American Patriot Front. 

In March 2015, the NMR participated in the far-right “International Conservative Forum” in St. Petersburg, which was organized by the Russian party Rodina (Motherland) (Vergara, 2015). On behalf of the NMR, Peter Jusztin participated, and, after the conference, the NMR visited one of the headquarters of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), in a suburb of St. Petersburg (Redaktionen, 2015b). Stanislav Vorobjev, the leader of RIM, visited the NMR during their Nordic Days and donated money to the NMR (Redaktionen, 2015c). The paramilitary branch of the RIM, Partizan, organized a training camp for right-wing extremists and, alongside groups from all over the world, NMR members Viktor Melin and Anton Thulin received eleven days of training in August 2016 (Wiman et al, 2017). In April 2020, RIM was branded as a terrorist organization by the US State Department (Kasurinen, 2020). 

The connections between NMR and the RIM go back to 2012, when Vorobjev handed out diplomas to Nordfrontemployees Robert Eklund and Henrik Pihlström for “their objective and correct description of the political situation in Russia in the Swedish media” (Redaktionen, 2012). In October 2016, RIM donated an unknown amount of money to the NMR, and the contacts were described at the end of that year by Simon Lindberg as “good” (Expo. 2019). 

The importance of NMR’s non-Nordic contacts is clear—NMR’s program is also published in English and Russian (Lodenius, 2020). In addition, NMR has a presence on Russian social media, with a significant number of followers (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 9). There is also an extensive digital exchange between the NMR and representatives of the American alt-right. This exchange seems to be primarily individual-based and not formalized. For NMR, the exchange offers an arena for new potential sympathizers abroad and creates opportunities to reach a new audience in Sweden (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481).

A Pan-Nordic Utopia: A Nordic Nation for Nordic People

Nationalist groups, in particular those with a militant or revolutionary outlook, usually emerge within nation-states (Ravndal, 2019); despite this, NMR seeks to expand its presence in other Nordic countries to establish a “Nordic nation for Nordic people” (Ravndal, 2019: 12). This goal is not new. Swedish National Socialist parties of the 1930s were also expansionist and intended to include all groups they defined as “Aryan.” The motherland was to be conquered by the workers, who were to be mobilized for the national idea and become part of the national community. 

NMR’s party program is permeated by the idea of a united Nordic region (Lööw, 2020: 92). In 2008, a branch of NMR was founded in Finland, while a renewed Norwegian branch was established in 2011. In 2013, a Danish-language site, nordfront.dk, was established, and an attempt was made to set up an NMR branch in Denmark, via Henrik Jarsbo (Lindberg, 2013). An Icelandic web site, nordurvigi.is, exist and does contain some general information about the organization (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the establishment of sister divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, the SMR changed its name to the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR). However, the organization has yet to mobilize nearly as many dedicated activists in the other Nordic countries as it has in Sweden (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden remains the country with most dedicated and active members (Ravndal, 2018: 15-16). Sweden is a special case in Scandinavia, at least in terms of the country’s historical experience of WWII and its subsequent attitude toward National Socialist ideas and symbols. While both Denmark and Norway endured German occupation, Sweden managed to avoid occupation by remaining neutral. This meant that Sweden did not experience the same post-war legal trials of Nationalist Socialist sympathizers that Demark and Norway did (Fangen, 1998).

Indeed, in Denmark and Norway a strong collective memory of national resistance was established; anyone designated as a “Nazi” was effectively excluded from the national community (Bryld & Warring, 1998). Finland also undertook a legal purge of sorts as the Finnish-Soviet armistice of 1944 required Helsinki to dismantle all fascist organizations. Here again, Sweden never went through the same post-WWII legal purge against Nazi sympathisers (Ravndal, 2018). Thus, in Sweden, the lack of memory of national resistance against Nazi Germany has meant that the extreme right is more prone to identify itself as National Socialist and to use the symbols and iconography of the Third Reich (Fangen, 1998). Sweden thus has a larger and better-organized national socialist movement than the other Nordic countries (Ravndal, 2018). 

Moreover, youth unemployment rates have been considerably higher in Sweden than in Denmark and Norway. Sweden has also received far more immigrants than the other Nordic countries and has experienced more problems related to segregated suburbs and crimes allegedly committed by people of immigrant backgrounds. In combination, these two conditions may have fuelled grievances among segments of the Swedish population that can be exploited by the extreme right to recruit new followers (Ravndal, 2018). In fact, the most successful far-right populist party in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD), has undeniable roots in the neo-fascist milieux (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010)—unlike its equivalent in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) (Meret, 2011).

Nevertheless, in Sweden, too, National Socialists must attempt to package or frame their ideology in ways that might shield it from immediate public condemnation (Kølvraa, 2019). Since the Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) was dissolved in May 2015, the NMR has been the most important neo-Nazi organization in Sweden. The Norwegian and Finnish branches of the organization are also central parts of the neo-Nazi environment in those countries. The NMR fights, in the words of its former leader Klas Lund, for “a Nordic national socialist republic including the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and optionally the Baltic states” (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to antisemitism, “Nordic-ness” is something that binds the Nordic countries together and is central to NMR’s ideology (Lööw, 2020: 86). The party hopes to preserve the Nordic people as they are today, ensuring that the Nordic racial type remains dominant in the Nordic gene pool (Nordiska Motståndsrörelsens, 2015).

Norway

In 2003, former members of the Norwegian skinhead group Boot Boys became sworn members of the NMR’s first Norwegian branch. Shortly thereafter, a Norwegian version of the NMR’s website, Patriot.nu, was launched, and the first issue of the Norwegian version of the NMR’s publication Nasjonal Motstand was published. However, finding dedicated activists in Norway proved harder than in Sweden. The timing may also have been unfortunate. The Norwegian militant movement had receded considerably following the murder of Benjamin Hermansen in 2001 by two Boot Boys members. Another complicating factor was that leading figurers within the Norwegian branch had to serve prison sentences for various criminal activities, including a bank robbery. Thus, after a couple of years of activities, the first Norwegian branch of NMR largely ceased to be active (Ravndal, 2019).

It took several years before a second attempt was made to re-establish the NMR’s Norwegian branch. In 2010, Haakon Forwald, mostly known as a former member of the Swedish black metal band Dissection (Lindberg, 2014), joined the Swedish branch as NMR’s only Norwegian member. This followed several attempts to reach out to the defunct Norwegian branch. Forwald was soon promoted to leader of a resurrected Norwegian branch and given the task of rebuilding it. Later that year, a Norwegian version of NMR’s website, Nordfront, went online, mainly containing articles from the Swedish site translated into Norwegian. However, slowly but surely, activism reports began appearing on the Norwegian website as well, usually about night-time sticker raids (Ravndal, 2019). 

Save its first years, the resurrected Norwegian branch was involved in few public activities, especially. This pattern changed post-2016, and Norwegian activists started carrying out more public activities (Martinsen et al, 2017). However, NMR’s Norwegian membership is much smaller than the Swedish and Finnish divisions. The Norwegian NMR also appears to be largely dependent on its Swedish mother organization. More Swedish than Norwegian activists have been involved in the few public events NMR has organized in Norway (Ravndal, 2018). Still, NMR has grown, however slightly, and counts several “nests” in Norway (Lindberg, 2014).

Finland

The Finnish Resistance Movement (Suomen vastarintaliike, SVL) was founded in 2008 by Esa Henrik Holappa (Hietikko, 2016b) following approval by the NMR (Wiman & Svensson, 2018). It immediately became the most militant Finnish Nazi organization. From its inception in 2008 until Holappa stepped down in 2012, he served as the official leader of the SVL and was one of the few members who operated openly under his own name (Strømmen, 2017). 

Holappa’s decision to establish a Finnish branch of NMR was highly influenced by the American veteran activist Richard Scutari, who is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence for his involvement in the American terrorist organization The Order, and was pen pals with Holappa. At the age of 17, Holappa started writing letters to Scutari. Holappa and Magnus Söderman—another of Scutari’s pen pals—have published their correspondences as a tribute to Scutari. (Söderman & Holappa, 2011). The book shows how Scutari put Holappa and Söderman in contact with each other, and how he advised Holappa to establish a Finnish version of NMR under the auspices of Söderman and the larger NMR (Ravndal, 2019). 

When Holappa landed in trouble for crimes related to hate speech in 2008, he became increasingly convinced that he would be convicted. When his American neo-Nazi contacts heard about his problems, they encouraged him to travel to the US. In August 2008, he followed their recommendation (Strømmen, 2017). Holappa left the SVL in 2012 and has been considered by the NMR as a traitor and oath breaker (Ravndal, 2019).

During its early phase, SVL tried to keep a low profile; this changed after a stabbing at the city library in Jyväskylä in January 2013 (Lodenius, 2020). SVL members were involved in several violent attacks in the 2010s, including several assaults on leftist politicians, and the stabbing of a security guard at a book launch event in 2013 (the book was about the Finnish extreme right) (Hietikko, 2016). In 2014, the SVL also latched onto news about a multi-ethnic, suburban gang assaulting other youth in Helsinki and organized vigilantes to patrol the city. These vigilante marches have continued sporadically throughout the country. SVL and its activists were real threats to those it sees as political opponents or unwelcome in the country—or to outsiders who just happen to be in the wrong place or have the “wrong opinions.” Most violent crimes attributed to SVL members have fallen into the category of street violence (Strømmen, 2017).

SVL has several features worrying to the authorities: good organizational skills, a long-term approach to developing its activities, and an ideology that embraces violence. Like the NMR, the SVL is strictly hierarchical, with clear manuals for its activism and group structure. It is working to build a subculture through social activities intended to draw in new members, including lectures, martial arts training, sports events, forest walks, and outdoor survival training (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the refugee crisis in 2015, there had been a surge of interest in racist and xenophobic organizations in Finland. To exploit the situation and boost recruitment, SVL attempted to soften its image. Members began to call themselves nationalists and patriots; part of their work was carried out under the banner of Suomalaisapu, or Finnish Aid (Strømmen, 2017). At the same time, SVL has tried to be the gathering umbrella for various National Socialist (Hietikko, 2016a),right-wing extremist, and nationalist and racist groups in Finland. An example is the “612” nationalist torchlight procession, arranged December 6 (or “6/12”), which is the Finnish Independence Day. Despite the group’s efforts to become the umbrella for all extreme right organizations in Finland, the SVL has had little success achieving this goal (Strømmen, 2017).

Moreover, there were strong internal contradictions between the old Nazi line and those who advocate for neo-fascism (Hietikko, 2016a). Ideological differences between the NMR and SVL also exist and occasionally cause friction. While the Swedish branch is representative of an old-fashioned Hitlerian variant of neo-Nazism, the Finnish branch is more diverse. Some members support a “Third Positionneo-fascism and have contacts with the Italian movement Casa Pound (Strømmen, 2017).

Considering these schisms, SVL member Mika Ranta decided to form a separate vigilante group. Ranta is a self-declared neo-Nazi who has been convicted of violent crimes. He chose to call his organization Soldiers of Odin (SOO) (Rosendahl & Forsell, 2016). Despite some differences, SOO is modelled on the SVL, and Ranta sought SVL’s permission to from SOO. Lately, the SVL and SOO have openly referenced each other (Strømmen, 2017).

While Finnish authorities have kept the SVL under close watch for years, pressure to take legal action against the group began to mount in late 2016 after one of its members assaulted and seriously injured a passer-by in Helsinki. The victim died a week later. Although the assailant was ultimately found guilty of aggravated assault with a racist motive instead of homicide, Finland’s National Police Board sued the SVL in March 2017, on the grounds that the group contravened Finnish association law. The SVL was forbidden to operate in Finland, but the verdict did not cover every single association registered as members of the NMR. The group’s charity organization, Suomalaisapu (Finn Aid), remains active and its party project, Kansan Yhtenäisyys (The People’s Unity), was left similarly untouched by the ban (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020).

The ban came into effect at the end of November 2018. At the end of 2019, Finnish law enforcement agencies also conducted an investigation into information that the SVL continued its activity under the pseudonym Kohti vaputta! (Towards Freedom!) (Teivainen, 2019). Kohti Vapautta! has arranged street activism, training sessions and other similar activities. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court of Finland issued a ban on the SVL on September 22, 2020. The historic decision follows the case that had been ongoing for several years. The Court decreed that the SVL and Pohjoinen Perinne ry (Northern Tradition), a registered association facilitating the group’s activities, were to be disbanded as they contravene Finnish association law. The verdict brought a close to nearly three years of legal deliberations and represents the first time since 1977 that an extreme right-wing group has been disbanded in Finland by court order (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020). 

Denmark & Iceland

Since 2007, the SMR/NMR has developed its contacts with the Danish National Socialist Movement (DNSB). In the same year, NMR representatives participated in a DNSB demonstration in Kolding in memory of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, where participants attacked counter-protesters. In 2013, Henrik Jarsbo, a former member of the DNSP (Lindberg, 2013), attempted to found a Danish branch of SMR/NMR, and Nordfront.dk was launched in July of the same year (Lodenius, 2020). Despite the website becoming the most developed of the non-Swedish Nordfront sites, the Danish NMR-branch soon became inactive (Ravndal, 2019); in 2016, the website was shut down (Kimmel, 2007: 206). Other groups with similar profiles are currently active in Denmark, most notably Denmark’s National Front (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2017, after consulting with NMR, a new organizational structure was formed in Denmark and divided into three nests. The new leader of the Danish NMR was Martin Durvad. The organization is better known as Nordfront. In the autumn of 2019, a coordinated action was taken against 84 Jewish cemeteries, which were desecrated with green paint. One of Nordfront’s members was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the act. The Danish NMR has about 50 members, with around 20 “hardcore” activists. Tommy Olsen assumed leadership after Forwald left to join Klas Lund’s Nordic Strength in 2019 (Lodenius, 2020; Nordisk Styrke, 2019).

Since 2017, NMR also has a branch and a website, nordurvigi.is, in Iceland. Led by Ríkharður Leó Magnússon, NMR Iceland held its first demonstration in Reykjavik in September 2019.

NMR Is Pro-violence and Uncompromising 

NMR is pro-violence and uncompromising (Lodenius, 2020). In addition to spreading their political agenda, NMR members have used different kinds of violence, threats, and harassment to hinder individuals from participating in political debates and meetings (Swedish Security Service, 2018). While the NMR claims to resort to violence only in self-defence, both its national socialist ideology and its blood-stained history say otherwise (Stormark, 2017). Moreover,according to the organization’s Handbook for Activists, “The NMR is not pacifist. We are aware that we can only win through physical struggle and that ideas and beautiful ideals mean nothing and can never blossom if these ideas lack aggressive fanatical champions” (Delin & Carlsson, 2017; Lodenius, 2020: 115). 

SMR/NMR’s former ideologue, Magnus Söderman, also highlighted David Lane’s clarification in his book Revolution: “You adults know very well that war is the only answer. ZOG’s (a term for Jews) henchmen will not voluntarily relinquish power. … because, they know that we will execute them for breaking the highest law of nature” (Söderman, 2007). It is not a secret that the NMR is willing to use physical force to achieve a racially pure Nordic nation. The group makes no effort to distance itself from the use of violence. Instead, its members actively speak and write about the race war that, in their minds, is inevitable. Thus, NMR has been specialising in pushing the limits of democracy and the rule of law through harassment, threats, and violence against opponents and the police (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). 

In order to analyse the contents and the various attacks perpetuated by the NMR, it is important to define NMR as a terrorist organization. It is a militant group with a hierarchical structure of nests, some of which consist of “combat groups” (Ravndal, 2019: 23). The groups use militaristic ways of training (Hellenstierna, 2019). Violent confrontation is something the activists train for regularly—for example in the form of single combat, where the winner is whoever is able to strike a deadly blow with a replica knife. But this is not just a game (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In Finland, one person who expressed opposition to the NMR was brutally assaulted and died a week later of complications that, to all appearances, resulted from the attack (Yle, 2016).

To date, the NMR—which is still a legal organization in Sweden—is generally not dangerous, assuming you don’t oppose them. However, should you be tempted to confront them, stand in their way, or refuse to let yourself be harassed, you are no longer safe. During several of the NMR’s demonstrations, there have been violent clashes between NMR activists and the police. One of these examples is a demonstration that occurred outside of a Book Fair in Gothenburg in 2017. NMR has also repeatedly clashed with civilians. They actively seek out these violent engagements to foster and attract internal group cohesion (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018).  

Politicians that step out of line and criticize the movement are quickly confronted by the NMR’s members. These intimidation tactics have also consisted of NMR activists following politicians to their parked cars. Council workers and opponents of the movement have also received subtle threats such as “Nice house you got there…” Some have also found stickers on their front doors or on the streetlamps outside their homes. These stickers feature a gallows with the slogan, “Reserved for traitors of the people.” By using such methods, the NMR spreads fear and gains influence far beyond its extremely limited public support (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

From time to time, NMR members have been involved in illegal activities, including violent attacks using weapons such as knives and explosives. Such activities are dismissed by the NMR leadership as something these activists have carried out on their own initiative. Interestingly, after some of these illegal actions, the NMR receives “exclusive” interviews from members of the self-titled “action groups” that claim to be behind them. One could speculate that the existence of such clandestine “action groups” may serve as a tool for the NMR to carry out illegal activities without compromising the organization (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

Between the 2014 and 2018 elections, NMR perpetrated high levels of violence across Scandinavia. As mentioned, in Finland, a young man was beaten to death by NMR members. The Swedish branch of NMR also displayed violent tendencies. In 2013, approximately 30 NMR members attacked an anti-racist demonstration in Kärrtorp Stockholm (Vergara, 2013). During 2016 and 2017 several members of NMR were convicted of bombings in Gothenburg. In the north of Sweden, in Umeå, the Jewish association had to close down due to threats and harassment (Expo NMR, 2019)

Despite its denials, NMR has been part of a Swedish far right that produced more right-wing terrorism and violence (RTV) between 1990 and 2015 than Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined. Zooming in on the Nordic countries, the RTV dataset covers 141 events. The most frequently targeted victims are immigrants (70 events), leftists (38 events), and homosexuals (9 events). Other target groups include government representatives, police, Muslims, Jews, Gypsies/Roma, the homeless, and media institutions (Ravndal, 2018). Moreover, Expo has identified 111 people who for the first time participated in NMR activism in 2017. Of these, 64 already have a background in the racial ideological environment (Dalsbro et al, 2018). Expo has also mapped 159 of the most active members of the NMR and, in 2015 alone, just over a quarter were convicted of violent or gun crimes (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016). If all crimes are included, one-third (33 percent) were convicted or prosecuted for some form of crime. In total, more than half (56 percent) of the activists have been convicted of some form of crime. In almost a quarter of the cases, the penalty was imprisonment, which indicates that they were serious crimes. For a period, the NMR sold knives emblazoned with the slogan, “The struggle requires more than just words” (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016; Pascalidou, 2017).

In 2018, Swedish Radio also mapped 178 people who were judged to be the most active in NMR (Lodenius, 2020) and at least 90 of them were convicted of crimes—and about one in four were convicted of violent crimes such as murder, assault, or violent riot (Jönsson, 2018). The year before, the Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet newspapers examined 84 NMR members, and the results showed that 58 of them were convicted of crimes (Folkö & Leman, 2019). According to another investigation, of NMR’s approximately 160 Swedish members, several have been convicted of crimes, including bombings, aggravated weapons offenses, aggravated violent crimes, and incitement against ethnic groups (Wierup, 2020).

The same pattern is evident in NMR’s leadership. Its first leader, Klas Lund, was convicted of murder in 1987, and for aggravated robbery in the early 1990s (Lodenius, 2020). Since September 2015, the NMR has been led by Simon Lindberg, who was convicted of vandalism, threats, and aiding and abetting assault. Lindberg is joined by a leadership group that includes Emil Hagberg, Fredrik Vejdeland and Per Öberg. While Vejdeland has been convicted of hate speech-related crimes, Hagberg was also convicted on weapons-related charges and for rioting (Baas, 2015).

With regard to any terrorist threats from NMR, the Security Police (Säpo) stated that NMR has a large capacity for violence. Säpo also stated that “our assessment is that this is an organization that has the ability to commit serious crimes that could be classified as a terrorist attack” (Jönsson, 2018a). Since NMR has violent tendencies, it has been classified by Säpo as the second biggest threat in Sweden after Islamist terrorism. Säpo and The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) use the term White Power to describe groups like NMR (Blomgren, 2020). 

As previously mentioned, in 2019, several core members of NMR decided to leave and create Nordic Strength (NS) which is considered to be more violent. However, there has been no evidence of an escalation of violence since the split (Expo Annual Report, 2019).

Another Battlefield for the NMR: the Media, Internet & Social Media 

In 2000, SMR/NMR established a web portal called patriot.nu (Vejdeland, 2012) which provided various magazines, an online store with publications and white power music, and more. In the early 2000s, the SMR also printed newspapers Folktribunen and Nationellt Motstand . With the development of social media, SMR’s propaganda strategy and range of channels changed. The most influential online magazine Nordfront, NMR’s digital communication channel (Vejdeland, 2012), was started in 2011. Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR launched a number of new media and produced extensive online content in a strategic move running up to the general elections in September 2018 (Askanius, 2021a). 

The NMR also established its own publishing house and bookstore, originally called Nationellt Motstånd förlag, but later changing its name to Nordfront förlag. Based in the small rural village of Grängesberg, it sells various National Socialist and antisemitic literature via its online bookstore, including a Swedish translation of The Turner Diaries, plus books by Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, and a collection of letters written by Richard Scutari, member of the US white supremacist terrorist group The Order. (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to Nordfront, NMR produces a whole battery of different radio and web TV initiatives (Sundkvist, 2017).

NMR has developed its presence on the Internet and greatly increased its involvement on social media (Blomberg & Stier, 2019); today, the organization has almost 20 different podcasts and TV channels. The purpose of this has been to reach out politically to normalize the organization and to project its reputation internationally. Through such outreach, NMR hopes to create closer relationships within the Nordic region and make contact with like-minded people across the world (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). In order to normalise National Socialism, NMR increasingly seeks to appeal to an audience beyond their own core members. Part of this strategy involves a shift in the tone of their online content—from militant propaganda to softer, less orchestrated and rehearsed political rhetoric packaged and presented in the form of infotainment and cultural content (Askanius, 2021a). 

Nevertheless, images of violence and violent rhetoric have always been an intrinsic part of NMR’s propaganda and key to telling the story of being at war with both Swedish “traitors” and “racial strangers.” Increasingly, however, NMR’s media narratives are saturated by other, less explicitly political and militant registers in which violence, violent rhetoric, and openly racist hate speech reside in the background to give way to “lighter,” more civil discourse—and seemingly more harmless forms of propaganda. This is particularly present and potent in NMR’s cultural productions and online entertainment, which includes, for example, television and talk shows, music videos, memes, poems, and podcasts intended to amuse and entertain (Askanius, 2021b).

In the online universe, NMR mixes the extreme with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. In this manner, NMR seeks to soften, trivialise, and normalise neo-Nazi discourse using the power and appeal of culture and entertainment (Askanius, 2021). Discourse in these spaces represents what Blee (2007: 15) has referred to as “a sanitized version of Nazism.” NMR’s content has been polished and tailored to dodge allegations of illegal hate speech, and its shows are carefully edited to avoid being censored and removed (Askanius, 2019). However, images of violent confrontations between police and activists, street fights, hate speech, rallies, uniformed men marching in line, combat training, white-pride music, and beatings of “racial strangers” to the sound of the Waffen SS Choir are also present in the growing repertoire of online media produced by and for the NMR (Expo, 2018, 2020; Mattsson, 2018).

The use of extremist discourse, which characterizes the online conversations between members and sympathizers, comprises narratives about personal experiences, rumours of criminal refugees (often accused of rape), or claims that refugees “do not belong here.” These conversations “construct them as others” (Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017). These discursive strategies do not merely justify and legitimatize the exclusion of or racism toward these “others,” but create a sense of “we-ness” and identity among members and sympathizers as well as the movement they represent (Blomberg & Stier, 2019; Campbell, 2006; Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017; Wodak & Reisigl, 2015).

With Simon Lindberg as leader of the NMR, the organization has developed its propaganda network and massively developed its various media channels on social media. In a very short time, 19 Swedish-language podcasts and web TV channels were created alongside Radio Nordfront, Radio Regeringen, the English-language Nordic Frontier, the activist podcast More Than Words (Saxlind, 2018), Ledarperspektiv (ideological focus), Radio LudvikaRadio Kungälv. Some of the TV content includes Studio NordfrontStudio Bothnia, Studio Kungälv, Studio Skåne, NTV Live and Norwegian Frontlinjen and Finnish Studio 204 (Lindberg, 2018). According to Lindberg, the ambition is to create more radio and TV broadcasts that will be broadcast around the clock (Lodenius, 2020), creating a “Nordic unity mindset.” This initiative aims to eventually broadcast in all the Nordic languages ​​(Nordisk Radio, …)

The NMR’s website appears to have a considerable readership—between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors per month. To compensate for their lack of numbers, one important tactic is therefore to carry out spectacular stunts to draw the public eye, often aiming at national media coverage, and then spreading footage and videos from these stunts through the internet and social media, allowing NMR to reach an even larger audience (Ravndal, 2019).

Conclusion

The 2018 general election results in Sweden have shown that the NMR should not be exaggerated, despite concerns about it as a neo-Nazi extremist violent organisation. The organization is still relatively small. Despite its small size, one shouldn’t ignore the threats the NMR poses. The party’s major investment before the 2018 election resulted in only 2,106 votes in the parliamentary election (0.03%). The result was a great disappointment for the NMR; following this failure, the party’s seems to have hosted fewer events and engaged in fewer physical activities. Whether this is a temporary decline or not is difficult to assess, but according to the NMR’s strategic plan, the organization is investing in increasing its local influence, its geographical spread, the number of political seats at all levels, and its channels on social media and international contacts (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). According to observers, there is a low probability that NMR as an organization will develop in a more violent direction. Nevertheless, Sweden is currently following Finland’s footsteps and started a government investigation regarding a potential ban of the organisation (Regeringskansliet, 2019; Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 480; Directive, 2019: 39).


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QAnon Shaman, Jake Angeli is seen as roaming  near the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection which was initiated by Former US President Donald Trump in Washington D.C.. Photo: Johnny Silvercloud

QAnon: A Conspiracy Cult or Quasi-Religion of Modern Times?

As with ISIL, QAnon’s ideology proliferates through easily-shareable digital content espousing grievances and injustices by “evil oppressors.” To perhaps a greater degree than any comparable movement, QAnon is a product of the social media era which created a perfect storm for it to spread. It was QAnon’s spread onto the mainstream social media platforms—and from there onto the streets—that made this phenomenon into a global concern. Social media platforms, again, aided and abetted QAnon growth by driving vulnerable audiences to their content.

By Bulent Kenes

The US was shocked by images of a man in a horned headdress roaming the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection. These frightening images feature the “QAnon Shaman”—or “Q Shaman”—the online persona of Jacob Anthony Chansley, from Arizona (he also goes by Jake Angeli). Chansley is a known super spreader of conspiracy theories (Tollefson, 2021; Giannotta, 2021). Both on the Mall and inside the Capitol, countless signs and banners were seen promoting QAnon, whose acolytes believe that former US President Donald Trump has been working to dismantle an occult society of cannibalistic paedophiles. At the base of the Washington Monument, Chansley was seen assuring people, “We got ’em right where we want ’em! We got ’em by the balls, baby, and we’re not lettin’ go!” (Mogelson, 2021).

Many of the January 6 rioters subscribed to QAnon (Jankowicz, 2021), which is an umbrella term for a baroque set of (Bracewell, 2021) eclectic super-conspiracy theories essentially rooted in populism (Smedt & Rupar, 2020). The QAnon movement emerged from the primordial swamp of the internet on the message board 4chan in October 2017 and has aimed to trigger the resentments of the “everyman.” Its series of confusing claims resemble the conspiracy legends of the past, but the power of online social media has given platforms to members of “Q” to share, promote, and connect (Smedt & Rupar, 2020; Wong 2020). 

QAnon alleges without evidence that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who are abducting, abusing, and ritualistically murdering children by the thousands. This global child trafficking ring counts among its members powerful elites like Pope Francis and Ellen DeGeneres, as well as many prominent members of the Democratic Party like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump also plays a leading role in the QAnon mythos as a secret-agent/warrior/messiah figure. Recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016, Trump has been working tirelessly behind the scenes ever since to defeat this Satanist cabal. What gives the QAnon movement its unmistakable populist tinge is the role it proscribes for its supporters in the apocalyptic confrontation between Trump and the paedophilic cabal (Bracewell, 2021). QAnon supporters believed, in the leadup to the 2020 election, that there would soon be mass arrests, and members of the cabal would be brought to justice (Beckett, 2020).

The QAnon narrative includes centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes, like the belief that the cabal is harvesting blood from abused children. QAnon’s followers, who also believe there is a “deep state” effort to annihilate Trump, have peddled baseless theories surrounding mass shootings and elections and have falsely claimed that 5G cellular networks are spreading the coronavirus. Experts call these extreme, baseless claims “an incitement to violence” (Beckett, 2020;Vazquez, 2020; Liptak, 2020), since QAnon believers—who have not brought a single child abuser closer to justice—have radicalized people into committing crimes and taking dangerous or violent actions (Beckett, 2020) (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

The movement has been linked to several violent acts since 2018, with QAnon supporters arrested for threatening politicians, breaking into the residence of the Canadian prime minister, an armed standoff near the Hoover dam, a kidnapping plot, two kidnappings, and at least one murder (Beckett, 2020). The FBI named QAnon a domestic terrorism threat in 2019 (Jankowicz, 2021) and the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point described it as a “novel challenge to public security” (Beckett, 2020). That threat nevertheless continued to grow (Jankowicz, 2021). 

Like many others, David Lawrence and Gregory Davis (2020) also argue that QAnon is no longer just a conspiracy theory. As it stands today, QAnon is a decentralised, grand, and multifaceted phenomenon—a political movement and a quasi-religion. Marc-André Argention (2021) agrees that over the past four years, QAnon has evolved into an extremist religio-political ideology and a “hyper-real religion” (Argentino, 2020a). This hyper-real religion is based on the premise that pop culture shapes and creates actual reality, with examples including, but not limited to Heaven’s Gate (Hafford, 2017), Church of All Worlds (Caw.com, 2021), Jediism (Lavelle, 2020), etc. Adrienne LaFrance (2020) is also among those who argue that QAnon represents the birth of a new religion. LaFrance underscores this argument by highlighting the apocalyptic tendencies found in QAnon; its clear-cut dualism between the forces of good and evil; the study and analysis of Qdrops as sacred texts; and the divine mystery of Q. 

According to Argentino, QAnon, as a movement is in a constant state of mutation and clearly blurs the boundaries between popular culture and everyday life. What this means is that technology and the marketplace of ideas have inverted the traditional relationship between the purveyors of religion and the consumers of religion. Some might argue that a hyper-real religion isn’t a “real” religion because it’s invented. QAnon is blatantly invented: it openly uses works of popular culture, media, entertainment, American evangelicalism, and conspiracy theories at its basis. Belief in QAnon reflects a created hyper-real world based on such theories (Argentino, 2020a). This situation is defined by Jules Evans(2021) as “conspirituality,” which refers to the overlap between New Age/wellness culture and far-right conspiracy culture like QAnon. 

Joseph Uscinski argues that QAnon’s ideation resembles a cult. What Q has done is to galvanize people around a set of ideas and weaponize them in a way that observers haven’t normally seen (Brooks et al., 2020, 25:44–27:46): Q’s followers act more like a virtual cult, largely adoring and believing whatever disinformation the conspiracy community spins up (Murphy, 2020). Conspiracies themselves may not be new, but the internet has enabled fringe thinkers to “find their people;” and “the power of the social web” allows groups to spread from “a niche or regionally-specific cult to a global movement” (Brooks et al., 2020, 31:30–31:51).

A satanic priest.

Paul Thomas (2020) sees many similarities between QAnon claims and prior rumour panics that employed satanic rhetoric. Thus, QAnon does not portray perceived political adversaries as merely having a difference of opinion, but as being downright evil. For example, in an Aug. 10, 2018 post, Q stated, “Many in Power Worship the Devil.” On Aug. 26, 2020, Q posted an image suggesting that the 2020 Democratic National Convention logo resembled a Satanic Baphomet pentagram, which incorporates a goat’s head and a five-pointed star. Accompanying text asserts that one party—the Republican party—discusses God while the other party—the Democratic party—discusses darkness. Such dialogue rises beyond the level of us versus them. Instead, QAnon elevates the conspiracy to a matter of cosmic good versus monstrous evil. Through that process, Qanon followers may see themselves as would-be monster-killers ready to use violence to remove evil (Thomas, 2020). While the religiously charged demonization of globalists dovetails with QAnon, religious maximalism has also gone mainstream. Under Trump, Republicans throughout the country have consistently situated American politics in the context of an eternal, cosmic struggle between good and evil. In doing so, they have rendered constitutional principles of representation, pluralism, and the separation of powers less inviolable (Mogelson, 2021).

Argentino writes in an article about the presence of a QAnon church operating out of the Omega Kingdom Ministry (OKM)—which is an existing model of neo-charismatic home churches as an offshoot of evangelical Protestant Christianity—and where QAnon conspiracy theories are reinterpreted through the Bible. In turn, QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself. The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube. OKM provides formalized religious indoctrination into QAnon (Argentino, 2020b).

Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. That helps explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together. But QAnon is different. It may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement (LaFrance, 2020). The QAnon narrative is also inflected with shades of millenarianism: the battle between Good and Evil will end when the messianic President overthrows the Satanists, ushering in a new period of global prosperity. The role of orthodox QAnon influencers is to guide less well-informed adherents in much the same way as scholars interpret sacred texts for religious movements (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

Of course, QAnon also deserves to be studied for its various populists aspects. First of all, QAnon offers comfort in an uncertain and unprecedented age as the movement crowdsources answers to the inexplicable. It becomes the master narrative capable of simply explaining various complex events and providing solace for modern problems: a pandemic, economic uncertainty, political polarization, war, child abuse, etc. (Argentino, 2020a). Secondly, QAnon has an anti-establishment ideology rooted in a quasi-apocalyptic desire to destroy the existing, corrupt world and usher in a promised golden age (Argentino, 2021). Thirdly, it has a worldview characterized by a binary approach through a sharp distinction between the realms of “good” and “evil”. Fourth, QAnon has an anti-science stance and unreasonable character. At its heart, QAnon is non-falsifiable. Belief in QAnon as the source of truth is a matter of faith rather than proof. Furthermore, by considering QAnon as a hyper-real religion, it becomes possible to frame how QAnon has found resonance not only within the American electoral system, but with populists around the globe. This is especially important in the context of framing the global response to the pandemic and public health. Last but not least, there’s an increasing overlap between QAnon and the far-right/patriot movements (Argentino, 2020a).

With anxious people around the world trying to make sense of the killer pandemic, QAnon conspiracies have found an enthusiastic audience. QAnon, as a “superconspiracy,” is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to takedown; and capable of merging numerous pre-existing subconspiracies, with new theories flourishing and older tropes finding a new lease of life under its rubric.

 

Social media campaign for coronavirus plus fake news and total disorientation in society. Photo: Iryna Budanova

QAnon As Both Fertile Mother and Brainchild of Conspiracy Theories

It is a widely accepted idea that conspiracy theories are born during times of turmoil and uncertainty. Fuelled by hysteria and unfounded claims of nefarious plots involving corruption and immorality practiced by unfeeling, immoral libertines, conspiracy theories emphasize the power that small cults of anti-human elites have upon the stability and established moral practices of a society (Kline, 2017). Conspiracy theories have been constant throughout history and existed since time immemorial, regardless of nationality, age, race, ethnicity, or any other marker of identity (Beene & Greer, 2021), but 21st-century technological advancements have provided a powerful infrastructure for connecting conspiracy-minded individuals on a global scale (Smedt & Rupar, 2020). Conspiracies tell a powerful story about the “zeitgeist” of a particular moment and of the deep uncertainties and anxieties of those who believe them, even if that story isn’t true (Brotherton, 2016; Butter, 2020, Uscinski, 2019)

Robert Brotherton (2013) defines conspiracy theories through several characteristics. First, conspiracy theories are unverified claims at odds with the mainstream consensus, and they grow and thrive because of their opposition to consensus (Brotherton, 2013: 10). Second, they are sensationalistic—of all the conspiracies throughout history, those that gain the most notoriety most often surround disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks, celebrity deaths, political figures, plane crashes, and aliens (Brotherton, 2013: 10–11). Third, conspiracy theories assume everything is intentional, nothing is coincidental, and the world is divided into “good… struggling against evil” (Brotherton, 2013: 11). Fourth, those adhering to conspiracy theories have low standards of evidence. Lastly, conspiracy theories are epistemically self-insulating “against questioning or correction” (Brotherton, 2013, 12). Therefore, the most successful conspiracy theories morph and evolve in order to stay relevant for followers (Beene & Greer, 2021).

With anxious people around the world trying to make sense of the killer Covid-19 pandemic, QAnon conspiracies have found an enthusiastic audience hungry for the promise of salvation from tyranny at the end of a struggle dubbed “The Storm” (Farivar, 2020). While disinformation expert Joan Donovan describes QAnon as “a densely networked conspiracy theory that is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to takedown” (Manjoo, 2020), several researchers argue that it is a “superconspiracy,” capable of merging numerous pre-existing subconspiracies, with new theories flourishing and older tropes finding a new lease of life under its rubric (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

During the volatile 2016 US presidential campaign, a flurry of conspiracy theories erupted, aimed at demonizing the candidates. One of the most outrageous conspiracy theories—involving child sex trafficking, ritual murder, and cannibalism—is examined to reveal its archetypal elements and relevancy to hard-wired taboos shared by all of humanity(Kline, 2017; Farivar, 2020). The anarchical group’s birth, and its continued seepage into mainstream American life, comes on the coattails of the Russian disinformation campaign that targeted US elections in 2016. ​While the Russian campaign had an apparent objective—to influence voters to elect Trump—QAnon is decentralized, having no clear objective aside from its popular slogan, “Question everything.” However, there’s no evidence that any of what QAnon claims is factual. ​Followers make unfounded claims and then amplify them with doctored or out-of-context evidence posted on social media to support the allegations. These theories have been further elevated through high-profile figures and organizations (Murphy, 2020).

QAnon has its roots in previously established conspiracy theories, some relatively new and some millennia old (Wong, 2020). The most recent precursor of QAnon is the “Pizzagate” theory that emerged ahead of the 2016 Presidential election, which alleged that Democratic politicians were trafficking children for use in paedophilic rituals (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Right-wing news outlets and influencers promoted the baseless idea of Pizzagate, which believes that references to a popular Washington DC pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, in the stolen emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta were actually a secret code for a child trafficking ring (Wong, 2020). The theory touched off serious harassment of the restaurant and its employees, culminating in December 2016, when a 28-year-old man named Edgar Maddison Welch, having driven from North Carolina to Washington, DC, fired an assault rifle inside Comet in a bid to rescue the children he thought were locked away there. No one was hurt. Welch was sentenced to four years in prison (Breland, 2019).

There are many threads of the QAnon narrative, all as far-fetched and evidence-free as the rest, including subplots that focus on John F Kennedy Jr. being alive (he isn’t), the Rothschild family controlling all the banks (they don’t), and children being sold through the website of the furniture retailer Wayfair (they aren’t) (Wong, 2020). The frantic, independent theorising of QAnon followers has proved capable of rolling any event into its grand narrative, from the momentous—such as the JFK assassination or the sinking of the Titanic—to the seemingly insignificant, such as the mispricing of items on the retail site Wayfair or a “hidden symbol” in a frame of a Disney film. This gives QAnon a certain fluidity: in some cases, adherents of the broader ideology might choose to emphasise certain aspects and minimise others as part of a calculated effort to maximise its appeal (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Therefore, it is not illogical to say that QAnon, like other conspiracy theories, is fundamentally a form of political propaganda to mobilize people (Tollefson, 2021).

However, the most striking part of the QAnon conspiracy theory is, perhaps, the fact that its followers believe that Trump is waging a secret battle against the cabal of devil-worshipping cannibal paedophiles (O’Donnell, 2020) and its “deep state” collaborators to expose the malefactors and send them all to Guantánamo Bay (Wong, 2020). Media scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (2020) argue that the claims about the existence of a “deep state” have a long history in America (Bodner, 2021: 144), as it has antecedents in influential 20th century political conspiracy thinking found in places like the John Birch Society, even if the term itself is not native to the US (Bodner, 2021: 145).

Ryan Gingeras (2019), who minutely details the term’s history, finds it first emerging in Turkey to explain the disparity between the apparent government and the relationship and influence of organizations within the state, the armed forces, and organized crime, each of which act as forms of parallel government. Turkey’s long history of coups, civil wars, and extrajudicial killings of political enemies makes the “deep state” a common way for Turks to understand their government and history. After 2000, the term is widely used in academic literature to discuss not only Turkey but other Middle Eastern countries (Bodner, 2021: 145). 

In the eyes of QAnon followers, the “deep state” actors in the US context are Democrats, especially those left over from the Obama administration (Bodner, 2021: 144). The concept has also been partially shaped and nurtured into a more precise form of official political conspiracy theory by Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to former President Trump. Published under a pen name, the term was introduced on Bannon’s website Breitbart News a month after Trump’s election (Virgil, 2016) and heavily promoted ever since (Bodner, 2021: 145). A public poll in March 2018 showed that 37 percent of respondents had heard of the “deep state” (Bodner, 2021: 146).

The utility of the “deep state” hypothesis to Trump is clear, since it is an absent and voiceless enemy that excuses any and all of his failures. For the last 12 years, Alex Jones—and since 2017, QAnon—have spent their time recycling and recontextualizing several traditional right-wing conspiracy traditions to repopulate the “deep state” with the correct kind of enemies. Democrats are an obvious choice. For wealthy businesspeople, they have substituted George Soros, amorphous “elites,” and Hollywood celebrities (Bodner, 2021: 146) QAnon has also amplified the rare appearance of a conspiracy category called “the benevolent conspiracy,” arguing that Trump and a surprising gang of allies are conspiring from within the government to bring down the “deep state” (Bergmann 2018: 52). If Trump won in November 2020, QAnon would be vindicated in their beliefs and said this is what God had mandated, reinforcing the belief that they were right. Since Trump lost, it was attributed to the “deep state” Luciferian cabal (Argentino, 2020a).

For many QAnon believers, the naturally-occurring chemical compound adrenochrome, produced by the oxidisation of adrenaline, is at the heart of the conspiracy. It is a potent drug/elixir of youth harvested by the cabal from the adrenal glands of children, who are tortured to intensify the drug’s effects (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). A cabal of elites didn’t just harvest children’s blood: they consumed the flesh itself. As proof, conspiracy theorists pointed to a website that falsely claimed that Raven Chan—Mark Zuckerberg’s sister-in-law—was involved with a fake restaurant called the Cannibal Club. Although the story has since been debunked, it’s alive and well on social media (Evans, 2020). Adrenochrome is real—it has hallucinogenic compounds—but everything else about this narrative is fiction. The origin of this concept is easily linked to Hunter S. Thompson’s novels Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973). Thompson’s character “Dr. Gonzo” says adrenochrome has to come from “the adrenaline glands from a living human body.” That the bodies are children is a QAnon addition (Bodner, 2021: 158)

The use of exotic drugs by dangerous deviants is a traditional element in several previous legends and conspiracy theories about endangered children (Brunvand, 2001). However, QAnon shifted the focus from enemies within to enemies above—namely, members of the “deep state.” Thus, QAnon has weaponized fears over Satanism and child harm and shoehorned them into conspiracy thinking associated with the “deep state” (Bodner, 2021: 163). The essential problem is that this conspiracy theory’s central narrative subverts legitimate concerns about child trafficking and child abuse with fantastical misinformation and anti-Semitic tropes, fostering dangerous anger in the process. It also risks obscuring genuine child abuse and hampering legitimate efforts to better child welfare (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

Conspiracy theories and populism both employ a binary worldview that divides societies between corrupt or evil elites and the pure or unknowing people, a framework that contextualises fears and hardships by personifying them into an identifiable enemy (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Gregory Stanton (2020), the founder of the Genocide Watch, says many people are perplexed at how any rational person could fall for such an irrational conspiracy theory. But modern social science shows that people in groups don’t always think rationally. They respond to fear and terror. They blame their misfortunes on scapegoats. They support narcissistic demagogues they hope will rescue them (Stanton, 2020).

Photo: Axel Bueckert

What Does “Q” Stand For, or, Who Is “Q”? 

On October 28, 2017, the anonymous user now widely referred to as “Q” appeared for the first time (LaFrance, 2020; Lawrence & Davis, 2020) on the message board 4chan. In a thread called “Calm Before the Storm” and in subsequent posts, Q established his legend as a government insider with top (Q-level) security clearance (Martineau, 2017; Bodner, 2021: 147) who knew the truth about a secret struggle for power involving Trump, the “deep state” (Winter, 2019), Robert Mueller, the Clintons, paedophile rings, and other elements. Since then, Q has continued to drop “breadcrumbs” on 4chan and 8chan, fostering a “QAnon” community devoted to decoding “Q”s messages and understanding the real truth about everything (Wong, 2018).

Anonymous internet posters claiming to be high-level government officials are not entirely uncommon: in recent years, other so-called “anons” have emerged with claims that they were revealing secrets from inside the FBI or CIA. But “Q” is the first such figure to have achieved such a broad audience and real-world political influence. This is largely due to the activism of three dedicated conspiracy theorists—Pamphlet Anon or Coleman Rogers, BaruchtheScribe or Paul Furber, and YouTuber Tracy Diaz—who latched onto Q’s posts in the early days and translated them into a digestible narrative for mainstream social media networks. The three built and shepherded the Q-community by expanding it to more accessible platforms like YouTube and Reddit and finding homes for the community when various sites shut them down, like Reddit and 8chan eventually did (Zadrozny & Collins, 2018; Bodner, 2021: 149).  

These activists worked to develop a mythology and culture around QAnon and cultivated an audience for it on mainstream social media platforms. (Zadrozny & Collins, 2018). According to Julia Carrie Wong (2020), QAnon might have faded away as well, were it not for the dedicated work of these three conspiracy theorists. Despite being de-platformed from numerous social media venues, there exists an entire QAnon media ecosystem, with enormous amounts of video content, memes, e-books, chatrooms, and more, all designed to snare the interest of potential recruits, then draw them “down the rabbit hole” and into QAnon’s alternate reality (Wong, 2020)—all allegedly leading to a “Great Awakening” (Wong, 2020a). 

“Q” has been communicating Trump’s plans to all brave patriots with ears via encoded online messages known as “Qdrops.” When the time is right, Q will give the signal and the people will rise up and join Trump in one final Armageddon-like showdown against the forces of darkness—an event that QAnon adherents call “the Storm” (Bracewell, 2021).

 “Q” first attracted attention with a wild premonition: Former Secretary of State and Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested, and riots would ensue. The prediction, needless to say, proved false, as did many others that followed, including the forecast of mass indictments of other Democrats. But that did not stop Q from continuing to post about Trump’s “secret war” against a deep state cabal of paedophiles, with his “Qdrops” parsed and amplified by a growing ecosystem of believers (Farivar, 2020).

Despite rampant speculation, no one has unravelled the mystery person behind Q. Outside QAnon circles, few take him as a real insider. Many experts believe more than one person may have been behind the Q account over the years (Farivar, 2020). Until July 2020, QAnon supporters believed that “Q” was a high-ranking Trump administration official, or maybe even Trump himself. But now, a good portion of QAnon believers have become convinced that Q is none other than JFK Jr, even though he died in a plane crash more than 20 years ago. (Sommer, 2018).

July 2018 was a rough month for QAnon followers. After making a post on July 4th, Q didn’t leave any clues for 20 days, marking the longest gap between Q hints since the scheme began. Around the middle of July, the anonymous poster, who was soon dubbed “Ranon,” posited that Kennedy hadn’t actually died in a plane crash. Instead, he’d faked his death to avoid the supposed deep-state cabal and teamed up with Trump to kick off a decades-long strategy. While Trump laid the groundwork for his presidential bid, Kennedy had become Q. In late July 2018, “Q” returned to posting and denounced “R,” its newfound rival for impressionable Trump supporters. Still, the Kennedy theory persists among a segment of QAnon believers (Sommer, 2018).

“Q”s posts are cryptic and elliptical. They often consist of a long string of leading questions designed to guide readers toward discovering the “truth” for themselves through “research”. Despite “Q” having consistently made predictions that have failed to come to pass, true believers tend to simply adapt their narratives to account for inconsistencies. For close followers of QAnon, the posts (or “drops”) contain “crumbs” of intelligence that they “bake” into “proofs.” For “bakers,” QAnon is both a fun hobby and a deadly serious calling. There are subcultures within QAnon for people who approach studying Qdrops in a manner similar to Bible study (Wong, 2020). Like medieval scholars engaged in interpretation of metaphysical texts, readers have constructed elaborate illuminated manuscripts and narrative compilations (Tuters, 2020).Moreover, those who subscribe to Qdrops are presented with elaborate productions of evidence in order to substantiate QAnon’s claims, including source citation and other academic techniques (Argentino, 2020a).

Commenting that the Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America, Adrienne LaFrance talks about the possibility of QAnon becoming another. “It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Qdrops as instalments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming,” (LaFrance, 2020).

There are around 5,000 posts attributed to Q in an online archive. Q’s posts are purposefully cryptic in order to protect his cover—or, alternatively, to employ the common stereotype of the commercial fortune teller’s trick: to make a statement as broadly applicable across any number of possibilitiesQ’s posts cryptically refer to a dizzying array of current events and various conspiracy theories (Bodner, 2021: 147). In analysing the Qdrops, Paul Thomas (2020) has noted a discourse of evil woven throughout Q’s messages. Peppering the Qdrops are claims like “many in our government worship Satan.” According to Anons, Trump is engaged in a battle of cosmic significance between the “children of light” and the “children of darkness” (Thomas, 2020).

The QAnon universe is sprawling and deep, with layer upon layer of context, acronyms, characters, and shorthand to learn. The “castle” is the White House. “Crumbs” are clues. CBTS stands for “calm before the storm,” and WWG1WGA stands for “Where we go one, we go all,” which has become an expression of solidarity among Q followers. There is also a “Q clock,” which refers to a calendar some factions of Q supporters use to try to decode supposed clues based on time stamps of Qdrops and Trump tweets (LaFrance, 2020). QAnon supporters have likened Qdrops to Hansel and Gretel-like breadcrumbs (Murphy, 2020). 

Trump supporters and some QAnon followers march around the SC State House in protest of Joe Biden (D) wining the 2020 presidential election in Columbia, South Carolina, November 7, 2020. Photo: Crush Rush

Who Are QAnon Adherents?

For the first two and a half years of its existence, QAnon attracted a devoted but relatively small coterie of followers. However, in the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced millions of people to hunker down at home and made the internet their almost exclusive connection to the outside world, QAnon’s popularity exploded (Bracewell, 2021).QAnon does not possess a physical location, but with its infrastructure, literature, growing body of adherents, and great deal of merchandising QAnon is now much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. As Adrienne LaFrance (2020) underlined, it is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. The group harnesses paranoia to create fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging, and they are demonstrating the ability to produce, share, and tie together worldviews that distort and shatter reality, creating an environment that resembles the birth of new religion (Smedt & Rupar, 2020) and political ideology (Argentino, 2020c).

It’s impossible to know the number of QAnon adherents with any precision, but the ranks are growing. While Q has hopped from one fringe imageboard to another, his followers have thrived on mainstream platforms: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Telegram. On any given day, even in the first half of 2020, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people posted about QAnon on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, according to Argentino, who says that it would be a mistake to dismiss them as “lunatics with tin foil hats living in their parents’ basement” (Farivar, 2020).

QAnon has gained traction as a political force, especially in the Republican party. 97 congressional candidates embraced QAnon during the 2020 election cycle—including two who won. In total, 89 of the candidates were Republicans, two were Democrats, one was a Libertarian, one was a member of the Independent Party of Delaware, and four were independents (Kaplan, 2020). It is not a secret that QAnon is most popular among older Republicans and evangelical Christians. Other followers appear to have come to QAnon from New Age spiritual movements, from more traditional conspiracy theory communities, or from the far right. Since adulation for Trump is a prerequisite, it is almost exclusively a conservative movement, though the #SaveTheChildren campaign is helping it make inroads among non-Trump supporters (Wong, 2020).

However, QAnon has developed beyond its roots in the intensely hyper-partisan and US-centric right, moving from a niche far-right interest that Lawrence and Davis (2020) have termed “orthodox QAnon” into a broader, less uniform type they call “eclectic QAnon.” This development has enabled the theory to gain supporters from across the political spectrum and of diverse backgrounds.

QAnon nearly reached the main stage of the Republican Party at Trump’s July 31, 2018 rally in Tampa, Florida, where signs reading “We are Q” and “Q” appeared near the front of the crowd during his speech. Four months later, Vice President Pence posted—and then deleted—a photo on Twitter with a law enforcement officer wearing a QAnon patch on his uniform. And in July 2019, the White House invited a QAnon supporter to a “social media summit” (Murphy, 2020).An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted in fall 2020 found that nearly a quarter of Republicans believed the outlandish core claim of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Therefore, Francis Fukuyama (2021) argued that the Republican Party is no longer a party based on ideas or policies but something more akin to a cult. Uscinski also said most QAnon followers are Trump supporting evangelicals who are predisposed to believe a pro-Trump, anti-liberal narrative (Wong, 2018).

With a brand ambassador like the “QAnon shaman,” it’s easy to dismiss QAnon followers as deranged, troubled, and isolated. But that is not the case, according to Brent Giannotta (2021). Most QAnon followers lead largely mainstream lives. A survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that 27 percent of white evangelicals nationwide believe in QAnon. That percentage is higher than any other faith group surveyed, and more than double the support for QAnon beliefs among Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and non-Christians (Colarossi, 2021). Flags seen at the Jan. 6 insurrection read, “Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president.” Making the jump from religious devotion to conspiracy theories requires an animating emotion—namely, anger (Giannotta, 2021).

For all the focus on QAnon on the “supply side,” the “demand side” is an even greater concern. As the journalist Charlie Warzel stresses, “Millions of Americans are actively courting conspiracies and violent, radical ideologies in order to make sense of a world they don’t trust” (Goldgeier & Jentleson, 2021). More than one in three (39%) Americans believe in the existence of a so-called “deep state” which was working to undermine President Trump – another tenet of QAnon (Ipsos, 2020). Also, as many as one-third of Republicans believe QAnon to be “mostly true” (Rothschild, 2020), and almost half (47%) of Americans say they have heard of QAnon, as of September 2020 (Mitchell et al., 2020).

Since QAnon expanded onto YouTube and Facebook, the movement has seen its ranks swollen by Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). White Boomers overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016, and they have also become enthusiastic transmitters of conspiracy theories via social media (Binder 2018; Bodner, 2021: 150). Many of QAnon’s supporters are middle-aged whites, many with stable jobs and businesses (Giannotta, 2021). Though academic research would suggest that conspiracy theories are for “losers,” QAnon has thrived. After all, the community propagating the QAnon conspiracies was on the winning side of the 2016 US presidential election (Argentino, 2020c).

According to QAnon adherents, the eventual destruction of the global cabal can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in clues posted by Q, who requires followers to reject mainstream institutions, ignore government officials, battle apostates, and despise the press (LaFrance, 2020). A large number of Q supporters believe in—and are increasingly vocal about—demons as active forces in American life and politics. Trump’s alleged battle against the “deep state” here adopts cosmic meaning, as not only the US government but undocumented immigrants and Black and LGBTQ people are cast as agents of demonic forces (Greenwood, 2020). In this regard, QAnon has many overlaps with spiritual warfare and its practitioners. It uses similar ideas of religious revival and donning the “armour of God” against unseen foes (O’Donnell, 2020).

People display Qanon messages on cardboards during a rally in Bucharest, Romania on Aug. 10, 2020. Photo: M. Moira

Women of the Movement: Pastel QAnon

In parallel to the findings of Daniel Halpern and his colleagues, who argue women and people with politically right-leaning views are more likely to share conspiracy theories (Halpern et al., 2019), QAnon has gained popularity among women (Butler, 2020). According to numerous reports, a significant number of QAnon followers are women introduced to QAnon ideology through images, videos, and stories shared by some of the most popular beauty, lifestyle, and parenting influencers on social media (Breland, 2020; Butler, 2020; Flora, 2020; Kelly, 2020; Tiffany, 2020). These women are using warm and colourful images to spread QAnon theories through health and wellness communities and by infiltrating legitimate charitable campaigns against child trafficking. Argentino names this as “Pastel QAnon,” which exists in adjacent lifestyle, health, and fitness communities and softens the traditionally raw QAnon narratives to spread the conspiracies to new audiences (Argentino, 2020).

It is not surprising that QAnon’s message would resonate in virtual spaces to which millions of women turn every day for advice on how to optimize the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families. Mothers, upon whom a disproportionate share of the burdens of pandemic-era child-rearing have fallen, are trying to keep their children safe and healthy. The QAnon movement ministers to their anxiety by providing them a window into an alternative reality in which the Coronavirus is a hoax and the “real” threat to their children is the deep-state cabal (Seitz and Swenson, 2020). As one QAnon adherent at a “Freedom for the Children” rally in London put it, “Saving our children is far more important than a fake pandemic” (Kelly, 2020; Bracewell, 2021). So sprawling is the QAnon universe that it seems to be able to adapt to prey on the specific fears of subgroups. In the case of mothers, of course, that’s kids. So, some members used moms’ groups to organize in-person rallies against child trafficking and what they believed was rampant paedophilia under the #saveourchildren QAnon hashtag. Many moms who shared these ideas didn’t know that they were part of a broader conspiracy theory (Butler, 2020).

Many female QAnon believers are “lifestyle influencers, including mommy pages, fitness pages, diet pages, and “alternative healing” accounts. “These influencers provide an aesthetic and branding to their entire pages, and they, in turn, apply this to QAnon content, softening the messages, videos and traditional imagery that would be associated with QAnon narratives,” Argentino wrote. QAnon influencers—some with substantial followings—post images of quotes with baby-pink and sky-blue palettes that read:“#whereareallthechildren,” “COVID is over,” and “child sex trafficking is not a conspiracy theory.” Several posts from users speak of the journey down the “rabbit hole,” the so-called “great awakening,” and being “red-pilled,” a reference from The Matrix which conspiracy theorists use to describe “sudden enlightenment” (Gillespie, 2020). The enormously affecting idea that thousands of children are being kept captive in dungeons and tunnel networks across the world has drawn in many who might otherwise have rejected the heavily pro-Trump and narrow political narratives of QAnon (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

According to Lydia Khalil, research fellow at Deakin University, there is a history within the wellness community which has been anti-establishment and very sceptical of big pharma; the QAnon conspiracies tend to feed into this. Adding to this, QAnon has also co-opted certain sayings or hashtags that will resonate with the community. #TheGreatAwakening is one of the group’s main hashtags and followers often talk about “waking up to the truth,” which are common phrases in new age spirituality practices such as yoga and meditation (Aubrey, 2020). Therefore, some influencers have even felt compelled to speak out against the QAnon movement. Seane Corn, a yoga teacher with 108,000 followers, wrote on Instagram that “QAnon’s agenda is to use manipulative means to recruit folks who are rightfully scared, angry and disillusioned with the state of our nation” (Gillespie, 2020).

Pandemic Accelerates and Widens QAnon’s Reach   

The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to many conspiracy theories, including the idea that the pandemic is part of a plan imposed by world elites to vaccinate most of the world’s population (Labbe et al., 2020). The pandemic has created an environment of uncertainty, distrust, fear, and powerlessness, and QAnon has successfully taken advantage of this atmosphere by expanding the scope of the conspiracy theory and using it to spread misinformation and fake news about an already complex and unsolved public health crisis. QAnon supporters have also managed to garner support for the antivaccine movement and anti-lockdown protests. In this regard, COVID-19 has become a vital part of the QAnon movement itself (MDI, 2020; Wong, 2020) and a boon for the movement in terms of new members (Argentino, 2020c). QAnon has grown louder by attaching itself to scepticism about the pandemic and fears over 5G and vaccination (Aubrey, 2020), as well as to theories that the coronavirus was engineered to earn money for vaccine makers (Tollefson, 2021).

In his long-winded “drop” on July 31, 2020, Q ranted that the coronavirus pandemic was partly designed to help “shelter” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden from appearing in public and participating in debates and to “eliminate” or delay Trump rallies (Farivar, 2020). A simple narrative explained that Trump was using the lockdown, especially travel restrictions, to prevent Satanic elites from escaping overseas before he could arrest them; and the stay-at-home orders would protect citizens during mass military actions (Mantyla, 2020). In other variations, the lockdowns provided cover for more complex military operations against the child traffickers (Bodner, 2021: 156).

The number of QAnon Facebook group members has jumped 800 percent to 1.7 million while Twitter accounts that post on QAnon related hashtags have increased 85 percent to 400,000 during the pandemic (Farivar, 2020). As the pandemic took hold, QAnon became a hotbed for medical misinformation. Analyses by Gallagher, the social media researcher, and the New York Times demonstrated how QAnon groups fuelled the viral spread of “Plandemic,” a 26-minute video chock full of dangerously false information about Covid-19 and vaccines. Facebook’s algorithms appear to have detected this synergy between the QAnon and anti-vaccine communities (Wong, 2020a).

According to Kiera Butler (2020), it all started with a trickle of odd posts when lockdowns began in March 2020. First, came the questions about social distancing measures; then there were posts with pseudoscientific “research” about how masks make coronavirus worse and social distancing can weaken the immune system. In May, Plandemic appeared and after that, the trickle of memes became a torrent (Butler, 2020). The exponential growth of QAnon has dovetailed with a boom of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which include claims that 5G radiation is the cause of the health crisis and/or that a potential vaccine will contain a microchip to track populations. This is at least in part due to the efforts of Q, who has repeatedly suggested that measures to control the pandemic were part of a plot to subvert the US election. QAnon followers have variously speculated that the virus is either entirely fabricated or a deep state bioweapon to allow for election rigging, scuppering Trump’s “Plan” and allowing the cabal to tighten their totalitarian grip; prominent figures in the fight against COVID-19, such as Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, have been widely condemned as members of the cabal (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

In fact, during the pandemic, most of Q’s posts proved derivative, reinforcing standard conspiracy thinking about the virus. Unlike the supposed insider information that early Q drops pretended to offer, pandemic-era Q presents no secret or privileged information (Bodner, 2021: 151-152). Seema Yasmin, a Stanford physician and expert on health misinformation, says conspiracies thrive in the absence of clear and consistent guidance from leaders. As the pandemic wore on, the Trump administration continued to contradict itself, sending mixed messaging on testing, schools, masks, and social distancing—not to mention the possible vaccine. Parents were left to their own devices, relying on incomplete information to keep their families safe. She said, “Charlatans are plugging those knowledge gaps. They’re saying completely false things with a sense of authority,” (Butler, 2020). QAnon is a significant force during the pandemic because of its reach into the very heart of the Trump Administration and the GOP (Bodner, 2021: 144).

Former US President Donald Trump at rally in support of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who is the Republican candidate for governor in Topeka Kansas, USA on October 6, 2018. Photo: Mark Reinstein

QAnon’s Ties With Trump As Conspiracist-in-Chief

The QAnon conspiracy gained adherents throughout the US as the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns heated up. Trump—who proved himself to be conspiracist-in-chief (Evans, 2020)—is revered among the conspiracy’s followers, who believe he was recruited to help eliminate the criminal conspiracy they allege is gripping the world’s power structures. Trump has repeatedly retweeted messages from accounts that promote QAnon while more than a dozen Republican candidates running for Congress have embraced some of its tenets (Farivar, 2020). Before he was banned, he amplified tweets from supporters of QAnon at least 185 times (Kaplan, 2021), including more than 90 times following the start of the pandemic (Argentino, 2020c).

Trump associates—such as his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, campaign manager Brad Pascale, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and son Donald Trump Jr.—have all amplified QAnon content as well. Trump’s son Eric Trump promoted QAnon on Instagram when plugging the president’s controversial rally that was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Argentino, 2020c) on June 20, 2020. He deleted the image relatively quickly, but not before screenshots spread across the Facebook Q-sphere. “So Eric Trump posted a pic with a ‘Q’ in the imagery,” an administrator of one of the larger QAnon groups wrote. “The pic has been taken down but the message was received!” (Wong, 2020a).

Although he never endorsed QAnon, Donald Trump repeatedly refused to condemn the conspiracy theory and once praised its followers for their support (Tollefson, 2021). He claimed that all he knows about the movement is that “they are very much against paedophilia” and that he agrees with that sentiment (Vazquez, 2020). Trump’s refusal to denounce QAnon throughout his term further strengthened the movement, whose members, unsurprisingly, helped push the president’s false allegations of a “rigged election.” Activists from across Trump’s base—who all bought into that disinformation narrative—arrived en masse at the US Capitol on January 6 with the express goal of overturning the democratic process, causing mayhem, and shaking the country to its core (Jankowicz, 2021).

During a town hall meeting, Trump also tried to separate himself from his retweet of a conspiracy theory from an account linked to QAnon, which baselessly claimed that former Vice President Joe Biden orchestrated the killings of Seal Team Six to cover up the fake death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. “I know nothing about it,” Trump claimed. “That was a retweet—that was an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves” (Vazquez, 2020).

He also refused to condemn the group in August 2020 and went so far as to embrace their support. “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump said (Liptak, 2020). “I have heard that it’s gaining in popularity,” Trump added, suggesting QAnon followers approved of how he’d handled social unrest in places such as Portland, Oregon. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country and they just don’t like seeing it.” Trump has also defended his decision to endorse Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, despite her history of promoting QAnon theories and making racist and anti-Semitic remarks (Vazquez, 2020).

On August 19, 2020, at a White House press briefing, asked if he believed the crux of the theory, described by a reporter as the belief that he “is secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of paedophiles and cannibals,” Trump said: “Well, I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” He went on, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are, actually, we’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country and, when this country is gone, the rest of the world will follow” (Liptak, 2020; Wong, 2020).

One debate in the conspiracy-theory research community is whether Trump has pushed more people into QAnon, or whether he just emboldened those who already believed. It’s been a lesson in modern populism: a world leader amplified once-obscure conspiracy theories, with each tweet and retweet strengthening their ideas and emboldening their supporters (Tollefson, 2021). Moreover, much of what is shared in QAnon groups on Facebook is a mix of pro-Trump political speech and pro-Trump political misinformation. Memes, videos and posts are often bigoted and disconnected from reality, but not all that different from the content that is shared in non-QAnon, pro-Trump Facebook groups (Wong, 2020a).

Demonstrators thank America and QAnon for the help and support in Berlin, Germany on August 29, 2020.

Global QAnon As an American Export 

Conventional thinking about far-right extremism often frames it as a domestic problem within nation-states. But such groups and movements, including QAnon, are transnational, sharing ideas and tactics across borders (Miller-Idriss & Koehler, 2021). QAnon has spread all over the world (MDI, 2020). Despite this, its growth in Europe and other parts of the world has gone mostly unnoticed. QAnon narratives are feeding on local contexts and attracting followers—both through popular local misinformation websites but also celebrities and politicians who are spreading the Q gospel. During the last two years, many new QAnon websites, pages, groups, and accounts appeared in the UK, France, Italy, and Germany, and quickly amassed large numbers of followers. They have also been shared within uniquely local groups, including pro-Yellow Vests groups in France and long-standing far-right conspiracy groups in Germany (Labbe et al., 2020).  

Although QAnon has spread to Europe, Latin America, and Australia—where it appears to be catching on among certain far-right movements (Wong, 2020)—every fourth QAnon tweet still originates in the US (Rupar & Smedt, 2021; Farivar, 2020). Fuelled by worldwide anxiety over the pandemic, QAnon has gone global, with adherents popping up in at least 71 countries (Farivar, 2020). In August 2020, Argentino identified QAnon’s presence in almost every country in Europe other than Estonia, Montenegro, and Albania. On August 22, 2020, as many as 200 street rallies were held across the US, Canada, and other countries under the inoffensive slogan of QAnon, “Save Our Children.” QAnon narratives have also inspired a series of street demonstrations across the UK, which have been held in 17 cities and towns. Whilst most have been small, some have attracted hundreds of people, and QAnon is becoming an important component in the wider, conspiracy theory-driven, anti-lockdown movement (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

The earliest explicitly QAnon Facebook group was identified in the UK in June 2018, roughly eight months after the first Q drop. However, QAnon remained an exceedingly niche interest in the UK for the first two and a half years of its existence. This was to change with the onset of the pandemic. On August 22, 2020, several hundred protesters marched to Buckingham Palace, where a section of the crowd angrily chanted “paedophiles” outside the gates; a clip quickly went viral, receiving 3 million views in a matter of days. What many commentators missed in the moment was the QAnon iconography in the crowd (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). QAnon is particularly well suited for adoption by right-wing reactionaries, who present themselves as chivalrous “protectors” of the nation and the family. However, QAnon has yet to spread wholesale into the British radical and far right, currently featuring as one of a myriad of fragmented concerns. But, its potent blend of anti-elitism and exploitation of deep-seated fears, combined with the growth of anti-COVID-19 conspiracy theories, means there is room for far-right converts and opportunists to take up its mantle and spread the theory further (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

Along with British influencer Martin Geddes, the European QAnon influencer who has had the greatest impact on the movement, both in the USA and internationally, is Janet Ossebaard, the Dutch producer of the viral documentary, “Fall of the Cabal.” Having described the Pizzagate theory of mass-scale child abuse by Democratic politicians in the US, she then listed what she claimed were similar examples of elite Satanic abuse networks in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and the UK. This linking of QAnon themes to older European reference points is a key element to packaging QAnon for an international audience (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

In Germany, which has the world’s second-highest number of QAnon believers (Wittig, 2020), QAnon has formed a distinct identity through its adoption by the Reichsburger movement, an existing far-right conspiracy theory that denies the legitimacy of the modern German state (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). When about 40,000 demonstrators gathered in Berlin on August 22, 2020 to protest Germany’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions, a small group broke off from this larger demonstration and approached the Reichstag. These far-right agitators attempted to storm the building. Inevitably, Germans saw shadows of this event in the January attack on the US Capitol (Miller-Idriss & Koehler, 2021). 

Nevertheless, perhaps the most vivid examples of the conflicting political interpretations of QAnon is visible in its manifestations in the former Yugoslav republics. Pro-QAnon groups can be found in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia. The largest QAnon Facebook group in the region is called QAnon Balkan which, as its name suggests, aims to unify the peoples of the region in support of the theory. Yet there are other Facebook groups which reflect national concerns rather than regional unity. Much of the discussion in the largest Serbia-specific QAnon group, for example, is fiercely nationalistic, with group members frequently expressing the desires to reassert Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

QAnon: One of the Evil Products of Social Media

As with ISIL, QAnon’s ideology proliferates through easily-shareable digital content espousing grievances and injustices by “evil oppressors” (Giannotta, 2021). To perhaps a greater degree than any comparable movement, QAnon is a product of the social media era (Lawrence & Davis, 2020) which created a perfect storm for it to spread (Jankowicz, 2021). However, without the anonymity provided by 4Chan and 8Chan, Q could not have kept up the charade of their assumed identity, nor could they have found a more receptive audience than the users of those platforms. Host to a legion of bored, alienated, and predominantly far-right users, the /pol/ forum of 4chan was almost uniquely suited to birth an ideology that conspiracy theories, a promise of violent retribution against a liberal elite and, importantly, the encouragement of the audience to participate by conducting “research” of their own. Q’s reach would have remained fringe, however, if it was limited to 4chan and 8chan (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

It was QAnon’s spread onto the mainstream social media platforms—and from there onto the streets—that made this phenomenon into a global concern (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Social media platforms aided and abetted QAnon growth by driving vulnerable audiences to their content. For instance, Facebook was not merely providing a platform to QAnon groups; its powerful algorithms are actively recommending them to users. Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that 64 percent of all extremist group “joins” are due to their recommendation tools (Horwitz & Seetharaman, 2020). The digital architecture of Facebook groups is particularly well-suited to QAnon’s collaborative construction of an alternative body of knowledge. The platform has created a ready-made digital pathway from public pages to public groups to private groups and, finally, secret groups that mirrors the process of “falling down the rabbit hole or taking the red pill” (Wong, 2020a). Recommendation algorithms on platforms prioritize engagement over truth, meaning that a search for natural health remedies, for instance, could lead users, in only a few clicks, to far more dangerous content (Jankowicz, 2021).

On the other hand, QAnon followers, some of whom spent 6 hour per day poring over Q’s messages for clues to the conspiracy puzzle (Brooks et al., 2020), have used a wide range of online tactics to achieve virality and garner mainstream media coverage, including making “documentaries” full of misinformation, hijacking trending hashtags with QAnon messaging, showing up at rallies with Q signs, or running for elected office. A very potent iteration of this tactic emerged in summer 2020 with the #SaveTheChildren or #SaveOurChildren campaign (Wong, 2020). 

The hashtags, which had previously been used by anti-child-trafficking NGOs, has been flooded with emotive content by QAnon adherents hinting at the broader QAnon narrative. Hundreds of real-life “Save Our Children” protests have been organized on Facebook in communities across the US (and around the world). These small rallies are in turn driving local news coverage by outlets who don’t realize that by publishing news designed to “raise awareness” about child trafficking, they are encouraging their readers or viewers to head to the internet, where a search for “save our children” could send them straight down the QAnon rabbit hole (Wong, 2020). 

Even prior to the explosion of interest in conspiracy theories as the pandemic struck, QAnon had become a visible and viral presence online. Prominent promoters of the theory had gathered hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and YouTube, while QAnon Facebook groups had grown to tens of thousands of members (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Most of the QAnon profiles tap into the same sources of information: Trump tweets, YouTube disinformation videos, and each other’s tweets. It forms a mutually reinforcing confirmation bias—the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information that confirms prior beliefs or values (Rupar & Smedt, 2021).

Since the movement’s earliest days, YouTube has played an essential role in the dissemination of QAnon narratives. In fact, it has been the gateway by which it first spread into the mainstream. Just one week after the first 4chan posts by Q, a YouTuber named Tracy Diaz produced a video summarising the emerging narrative from Q, bringing it to the attention of the wider conspiracy theorist community for the first time. Over the next few years, a huge community of QAnon interpreters emerged on YouTube, developing vast audiences for videos in which they dissect Q’s posts and analyse the news cycle through the lens of QAnon. A spate of documentaries that promoted aspects of the QAnon narrative, such as “Fall of the Cabal”, “Out of Shadows,” and “Plandemic” were also posted on YouTube. These videos received millions of views (Lawrence & Davis, 2020) while YouTube and other social media companies faced pressure over whether they would be banning QAnon-related activity. 

Eventually, in August 2020, Twitter removed a false claim about coronavirus death statistics that Trump had retweeted. And Facebook said that it would ban any pages, groups, and Instagram accounts representing QAnon (Vazquez, 2020).While Facebook has policies banning hate speech, incitement to violence, and other types of content that it considers undesirable on a family-and advertiser-friendly platform, QAnon does not fit neatly into any single category. The anticipated purge by Facebook never came. Instead, QAnon groups on Facebook have continued to grow at a considerable pace. With more than 3 million aggregate followers and members, the groups and pages play a critical role in disseminating Q’s messages to a broader audience (Wong, 2020a). 

While QAnon thrives on Facebook, another social media site took timely and decisive action against it. Nearly two years ago, Reddit carried out a site-wide purge of QAnon—and made it stick (Wong, 2020a). In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, Twitter banned Trump, disconnecting him from his nearly 89 million followers, and took down more than 70,000 accounts linked to disinformation about campaign fraud and conspiracy theories. Facebook and YouTube have also suspended Trump’s accounts. These actions have stifled the online conversation. An entire section tied to QAnon on Twitter disappeared overnight (Tollefson, 2021). 

From August to November 30, 2020, Facebook removed about 3,000 Pages, 9,800 groups, 420 events, 16,200 Facebook profiles, and 25,000 Instagram accounts for “violating its policy against QAnon.” Since then, the company continued to enforce this policy. As of January 12, 2021, Facebook had removed about 3,300 Pages, 10,500 groups, 510 events, 18,300 Facebook profiles, and 27,300 Instagram accounts for “violating its policy against QAnon” (Facebook, 2021). Twitter also suspended 70,000 accounts that share QAnon content at scale (BBC, 2021). Social media platforms’ crackdown on QAnon disrupted the movement’s ability to spread radical messages, but it won’t stop the group completely (Argentino, 2020).

Following the announcement that YouTube would remove “conspiracy theory content used to justify real-world violence,” many of the most prominent QAnon channels were removed, including the X22 Report, PrayingMedic, and others. Many of those users had already set up backup channels on largely unmoderated video platforms such as BitChute, the owner of which has expressed support for conspiracy theories and welcomed its proponents onto their platform. Yet none of the alt-tech sites can begin to match the audience sizes that YouTube can offer, and as such this move represents a significant blow to both the channel owners and the movement as a whole (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

After having their content restricted, QAnon supporters abandoned the big platforms and migrated to 4chan, a more permissive message board. When 4chan’s moderation teams started tempering incendiary comments, QAnon followers moved to a new platform, 8chan (now called 8kun). These conspiracy theorists can still communicate with one another through ordinary email or on encrypted channels such as Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp (Fukuyama et al., 2021). Some groups changed their names, substituting “17” for “Q” (the 17th letter of the alphabet); others shared links to back-up accounts on alternative social media platforms with looser rules (Wong, 2020a; Jankowicz, 2021).

QAnon has further fragmented into communities on Telegram, Parler, MeWe and Gab. These alternative social media platforms are not as effective for promoting content or merchandise, which will impact grifters who were profiting from QAnon, as well as limit the reach of proselytizers. But the ban will push those already convinced by QAnon onto platforms where they will interact with more extreme content they may not have found on Facebook. This will radicalize some individuals more than they already are or will accelerate the process for others who may have already been on this path (Argentino, 2020). 

Experts doubt the disciplinary measures will banish the movement. Banning QAnon followers from Facebook and Twitter would also reinforce their belief that they’re engaged in an information war against media elites and others in the deep state (Farivar, 2020). A Textgain analysis of 50,000 QAnon tweets posted from December 2020 – January 2021 showed toxicity had almost doubled, including 750 tweets inciting political violence and 500 inciting violence against Jewish people (Rupar & Smedt, 2021).

Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), founder of the international banking family. Ca. 1790. Photo: Everett Collection

QAnon Is Inherently Anti-Semitic

A strong anti-Semitism has run through QAnon since the beginning—and is only growing more pronounced (Sales, 2020). QAnon draws together anti-Semitism, sexual excess, homophobia, and race-baiting in a modern-day moral panic (Evans, 2020). Whilst some followers may be conscious anti-Semites, others may be ignorantly regurgitating tropes they are unaware are racist; still others are simply turning a blind eye, denying charges of anti-Semitism as a mainstream media smear. Regardless, QAnon is promulgating an ancient form of prejudice and has the potential to radicalise converts towards Jew hatred (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

According to Gregory Stanton, who published a piece titled “QAnon is a Nazi cult, rebranded,” QAnon is the latest version of “the conspiracy ‘revealed’ in the most influential anti-Jewish pamphlet of all time: Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (Sales, 2020), a fictional document first published in Russia in the early 1900s (Thomas, 2020). The fabricated document purports to expose a Jewish plot to control the world including infiltrating the media and political parties to brainwash and enslave populations and was used throughout the 20th century to justify anti-Semitism (Wong, 2020; Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Examining past rhetoric targeting Jews reveals how such a discourse lubricates the machinery of violence—Hitler called the Protocols “immensely instructive” (Thomas, 2020).

Stanton (2020) also says QAnon’s conspiracy theory is a rebranded version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The cabal supposedly held the American Presidency under the Clintons and Obama, nearly took power again in 2016, and lurks in a “Deep State” financed by Jews, including George Soros, and in Jews who control the media. They want to disarm citizens and defund the police. They promote abortion, transgender rights, and homosexuality. They want open borders so brown illegal aliens can invade America and mongrelize the white race. According to Stanton, the world has seen QAnon before. It was called Nazism. “In QAnon, Nazism wants a comeback,” he said.

Q has identified “puppet masters” at the centre of the international cabal: the Rothschild family and Soros. They have long been common targets for anti-Semitism, with the first smeared as sinister, sometimes supernatural global financiers for 200 years. Q has directly tapped into this toxic legacy, for example erroneously alleging that Rothschild has a controlling interest in every nation’s central bank (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Both the Rothschild family members and Soros were condemned, slandered, and blamed for supposedly trying to take control of the world and profiting from it because they are both wealthy and Jewish. QAnon supporters have continued to use this method of implicating them. In fact, this appears to be the most commonly used anti-Semitic dog whistle (MDI, 2020).

One general claim often used by QAnon supporters is that the Rothschild family and Soros are deeply involved in the “evil Project of billionaires” and are “exploiters of the pandemic” who own the COVID-19 “patents” that were supposedly used to manufacture the disease. In one video in particular, posted in French on Facebook, Soros is referred to as the “evil creature.” Both the Rothschilds and Soros have also been condemned for their links to one another and to other large organizations. One particularly prominent example involves the World Health Organization (WHO), which is framed as a vehicle for global elites to exert control and ultimately perpetrate a global hoax supported and run by Bill Gates. QAnon supporters also frequently name the Rothschild family members and George Soros as founders and continuous funders of the WHO (MDI, 2020).

QAnon also has its roots in much older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories centring on the vulnerability of children. These are neither new nor distinctly American. The QAnon conspiracy about adrenochrome is a modern remix of the age-old anti-Semitic blood libel (Wong, 2020). In the Middle Ages, this was driven by a fear of Jewish magicians kidnapping and stabbing Christian children for evil rituals. The blood produced from these rites was rumoured to be ritually consumed as drink or mixed into matzo. It was a demonic fantasy and not based in any reality. It is noteworthy that QAnon claims about child abduction and blood consumption are linked to prominent Jewish figures (Thomas, 2020). “Hurting children is one of the worst things you can say someone is doing. It’s an easy way to demonize your enemy,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California-Davis (Breland, 2019).

Some of QAnon’s supporters are surely aware that they are targeting Jews. But, according to Sales (2020), the ideas of harvesting children’s blood and controlling the world through a secret cabal are anti-Semitic, even if the growing numbers of QAnon adherents don’t realize it or don’t directly refer to Jews. These ideas are so old and established that they function as codes for anti-Semitism and obviate the need to mention Jews directly. These ideas act as dog whistles for neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites; they have the effect of propagating anti-Semitism regardless of their original intent (Sales, 2020).

Many of those within the QAnon movement have utilised this anti-Semitic dog whistling. In other words, QAnon supporters are repeatedly referencing certain people, terms, and narratives that may appear vague and harmless without context, but which actually signal a more insidious form of hate speech against all Jewish people. ­­­Specifically, dog whistling is being used as a tactic within the QAnon movement to denounce prominent Jewish public figures and global Jewry in ways that are all too familiar. Jews are being implicated in the spread and creation of Covid-19, as they have been blamed for many diseases throughout history (MDI, 2020). 

A rally goer representing QAnon has their “Q” sign taken away from them by security during the “Make America Great Again” rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA on August 2, 2018. Photo: Brandon Stivers

Conclusion: Why Does QAnon Matter?

First of all, there is a threat of violence. For those who truly believe that powerful figures are holding children hostage in order to exploit them sexually or for their blood, taking action to stop the abuse can seem like a moral imperative. While most QAnon followers will not engage in violence, many already have—or have attempted to—which is why the FBI has identified the movement as a potential domestic terror threat (Wong, 2020). The FBI has already described “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a growing threat. It lists a number of arrests, including some that haven’t been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs. An FBI document specifically mentions QAnon (Winter, 2019).

The FBI acknowledges that conspiracy theory-driven violence is not new—but also says it’s gotten worse with advances in technology combined with an increasingly partisan political landscape. “The advent of the Internet and social media has enabled promoters of conspiracy theories to produce and share greater volumes of material via online platforms that larger audiences of consumers can quickly and easily access,” the document says (Winter, 2019). Indeed, there have been numerous incidents of real-world violence linked to QAnon, and in May 2019, the FBI identified QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat in an intelligence bulletin. The bulletin stated the online narratives were determining the targets of harassment and violence for the small subset of individuals who crossed over into real-world action (Wong, 2020a)which can have serious consequences for the targets (Wong, 2020).

What’s more, extremist groups like QAnon endanger democracy primarily when they leave the periphery of the Internet and enter the mainstream. This happens when their voices are either picked up by the media or amplified by a platform (Fukuyama et al., 2021). From the point of view of someone who believes the QAnon conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party elite are behind a vast paedophile ring threatening innocent children, perhaps January 6th really did seem to be an act of patriotism. Samuel Johnson famously claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but as Zacek (2021) underlines and as is so often true, the reality is undoubtedly far more complex.

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Armed protesters, including Boogaloo Boys, on the lawn of the Michigan capitol, denying the results of the recent election before the inauguration of Joe Biden in Lansing, Michigan, US on January 17, 2021. Photo:  Lester Graham

Boogaloo Bois: Violent Anti-Establishment Extremists in Festive Hawaiian Shirts

As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party, typically accelerationist Boogaloo Boys use these Hawaiian shirts to hide their intention to trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment in the US.

By Bulent Kenes

Through 2021, white supremacists and far-right extremists will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States (US), where political and ideological divisions fall cleanly along racial lines (Newkirk II, 2019) according to a document prepared by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2020. However, former US President Donald Trump regularly downplayed this threat during his term (Sands, 2020). Many experts already associate rising far-right extremism with the rise of Trump. Hate crimes, anti-Semitism, and the number of hate groups have risen sharply since Trump’s campaign began in 2015. The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) (2020) also observed that these groups have been encouraged by Trump’s tweets about “liberating” states. Despite its resurgence under Trump, the problem of far-right extremism in the US is not new, and its history dates back to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after the Civil War. 

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, the US experienced the greatest risk of serious civil unrest and violent revolt since 1860, when 11 states refused to accept Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and eventually seceded from the Union. American citizens have already been armed to the teeth, with record firearms sales during the coronavirus pandemic, especially among first-time gun buyers (Brigety II, 2020). Thousands of these gun owners showed up during the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, that resulted in five deaths. The crowd falsely claimed the incumbent Trump had won the election and that then President-elect Joe Biden “stole” it through widespread voter fraud. Right-wing protests were also slated to occur at state capitols the weekend of January 17, and the “Boogaloo Boys” (a.k.a. Boogaloo Bois) were among those either planning the protests or planning to attend (SPLC, 2021).

The Boogaloo Boys were also among the most visible participants at state capitol protests after January 6, and specifically in Richmond, Virginia, on January 18. As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. The shirts are a reference to “big luau,” which is an adaptation of the word “boogaloo” (SPLC, 2021). Aloha philosophy is associated with the Native Hawaiian spirit of love, compassion, and mercy – ironic, considering the shirts being worn by Boogalooers at violent demonstrations (Jones, 2021) intended to trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment (Hinton, 2021).

Despite the occasional adoption by luxury designers, the Aloha shirt is more commonly associated with midlife crises. An article in The New York Times once described the Hawaiian shirt as a “signifier of the style-challenged tourist” (Tudela, 2016). In his book “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands,” Dale Hope wrote about its “humorous, garish or tacky” associations. However, Scot Nakagawa, a senior fellow at ChangeLab, explained that lurid style is a long-held tradition of insurgent white nationalism. The KKK also made use of costumes and mythic rituals as they practiced extreme violence against African-Americans. More modern examples of clothing used by extremist subcultures include the Ben Sherman or Fred Perry shirts, Doc Marten boots, and suspenders worn by neo-Fascist groups from the punk era into 1990s Britain. In addition to identifying members of the groups, wearing these items served as a recruiting tool. Doing so may be an attempt to bait the less informed into assuming the group means no real harm – that they are, really, a goofy bunch of boys despite their military-grade weaponry (Pemberton, 2020).

Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party (Giglio, 2020), the Boogaloo Boys use Hawaiian shirts to hide their intentions (Delgado, 2020). The result of an analysis of over 100 million social media comments has confirmed how the “boogaloo meme,” “a joke for some, acts as a violent meme that circulates instructions for a violent, viral insurgency for others.” According to the researchers, it is like turning off the transponders on 9/11 to enable the extremists to hide in plain sight, disappearing into the clutter of innocent messages (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

This interpretation is shared by Patrick Blanchfield of the Brooklyn Institute. He, and other experts on white nationalist extremism in the US, have stressed that such in-jokes are a longstanding practice of extremist movements born out of online message boards like 4chan and Reddit and, in the case of the Boogaloo Bois, Facebook. Joshua Citarella, a researcher of extremist behaviours on the internet, says this kind of Boogaloo imagery appeared to be “100 percent” co-opted by, among Gen Z, white nationalist groups who wanted not just a confrontation with the establishment, but also a full-fledged race war (Beckett, 2020). However, while a number of empty symbols have been appropriated by groups defined by white nationalist and anti-government ideologies – including Pepe the Frog, the “OK” hand sign, and a purple pigeon emoji – the Aloha shirt represents the first-time extremists have laid claim to a piece of clothing with largely benign associations (Pemberton, 2020).

The term "boogaloo" once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them.

The far-right extremists began referring to an impending civil war using the word “boogaloo,” a joking reference to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a 1984 sequel movie.

No Longer About Music And Dance, But About Menace

The story of the term “boogaloo” is also interesting. The movement was first noticed by extremism researchers in 2019, when fringe groups ranging from gun rights and militia movements to white supremacists began referring to an impending civil war using the word “boogaloo,” a joking (Patches, 2014) reference to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a 1984 sequel movie (Zadrozny, 2020; SPLC, 2021) about breakdancing teens battling to save their local community centre from corrupt politicians and corporate development. Sam Firstenberg, the Israel-born movie director of the cult classic explained that the “Electric Boogaloo” began as a meme on the internet. “In the last 10 years or so, it became equal with the word ‘sequel,’” Firstenberg said, in conjunction with the second civil war the Boogaloo movement aspires to create. “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo” began popping up on message boards (Abramovitch, 2020).

According to Allam (2020), the movie, which received poorly by critics, became a cult classic. The title has evolved into a meme in a sarcastic way to describe any unwanted sequel. In 1965, the word “boogaloo” emerged as a mash-up of black and Latin American influences. Some 50 years later, the word is still part of American pop culture, but now with a very different meaning. The word once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them (Allam, 2020).

The Boogaloo Boys also use other similar-sounding derivations of the word, including “boog,” “boojahideen,” “big igloo,” “blue igloo,” and “big luau” to avoid crackdowns and automated content flags imposed by social media sites to limit or ban Boogaloo-related content (Timberg et al., 2020). Intensified efforts by social media companies to restrict Boogaloo content have caused adherents to use terms even further detached from the original word such as “spicy fiesta” to refer to the movement (Barton, 2020). The Boogaloo movement has created logos and other imagery incorporating igloo snow huts and Hawaiian prints based on these derivations (Charter, 2020; Woodward, 2020). The Boogaloo Boys sometimes carry black-and-white versions of the American flag, with a middle stripe replaced with a stripe of red tropical print and the stars replaced with an igloo. The stripes sometimes list the names of people killed by the police, including Eric Garner, Vicki Weaver, Robert LaVoy Finicum, Breonna Taylor, and Duncan Lemp (Barton, 2020).

The Boogaloo Boys sometimes carry black-and-white versions of the American flag, with a middle stripe replaced with a stripe of red tropical print and the stars replaced with an igloo.

 

Boogaloo memes and ideas have been circulating since the 2010s; however, in the past couple of years, the movement’s adherents have been more visible at rallies and events (SPLC, 2021). The Boogaloo movement exploded into the mainstream after it came to light that Sgt. Steven Carrillo, who on May 29, 2020 used the cover of the George Floyd protests to gun down one federal officer and injure another in Oakland, California, claims allegiance to the group. Carrillo later scrawled the word “Boog” in his own blood on the hood of a stolen vehicle during a June 6 gun battle with police in Santa Cruz County that also claimed the life of a sheriff’s deputy (Abramovitch, 2020).

It is now obvious that the term “boogaloo” has been used to describe an uprising against a supposedly tyrannical or left-wing government, often in response to a perceived threat of widespread gun confiscation. For many, the word “boogaloo” is used jokingly or ironically, but for others, the boogaloo memes are shared alongside violent text and images, seemingly to incite an eventual confrontation. The ambiguity of the term “boogaloo” works to cloak extremist organizing in the open. “Like a virus hiding from the immune system, the use of comical-meme language permits the network to organize violence secretly behind a mirage of inside jokes and plausible deniability,” stated a report by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI (Zadrozny, 2020). Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020) say this ambiguity is a key feature of the problem. Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, says “It is very difficult to know if the ‘boogaloo boi’ you see standing in the middle of the street at a protest is there in solidarity or to incite violence” (Pineda, 2020).

While many still use the boogaloo meme jokingly, an increasing number of people employ the phrase in hopes of inciting the expected apocalyptic confrontation with law enforcement and government officials or to provoke ethnic warfare. Pemberton (2020) noted that it’s not uncommon to see heavily armed white men toting military-grade gear on American streets; however, the addition of the Hawaiian shirt is a new twist. The tactics the Boogaloo Boys have used to gain media attention have been honed over the course of decades, by extremist groups from the KKK to the “alt-right”: wear distinctive, lurid outfits; give your ideology a weird name; and use bizarre terms that journalists could reveal and decode for their readers. As an example, boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen,” a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen, who fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of their country (Beckett, 2020).

The Boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan where the meme was often accompanied by references to “racewar” and “dotr” (“day of the rope,” a neo-Nazi reference to a fantasy involving murdering what the posters view to be “race traitors”) (Zadrozny, 2020; ADL, 2019). By 2019, its culture had disseminated across social media into a mix of online groups and chat servers where users shared libertarian political memes. In recent times, this all began to manifest in real life, as users from the groups emerged at protests. The Boogaloo movement – which unites a wide variety of extremist and fringe movements, subcultures, andpeople (ADL, 2020a), some of whom have attempted to associate with Black Lives Matter and others with neo-Nazism (Crawford, 2020) – is the latest example of a mass of memes escaping from 4chan to become a real-life radical movement. As nationwide unrest intensified at the start of the summer of 2020, many Boogaloo adherents interpreted this as a cue to realize their main fantasy: armed revolt against the US government (Beran, 2020).

Part meme, part subculture, the Boogaloo Boys is a mash-up of anti-government apocalyptic screed, Second Amendment evangelism, and dark-humoured satire (Weiner, 2020). Relying heavily on humour makes their messaging more accessible and appealing, while also allowing them to underplay the more disturbing content as jest. This use of humour does not diminish the violence associated with Boogalooers’ expressed intent. While some Boogalooers try to frame their support for an armed rebellion only as a defensive measure against state-sponsored aggression, others embrace the notion of a full-scale civil war. To this end, members believe that civilians need to be armed with firearms and explosives to maintain the balance of power between the people and the state. As a decentralized movement that organizes largely online but whose presence has increasingly been felt in the real world, the Boogaloo Boys is a group favoured by the militia, gun rights, and anarcho-capitalist movements (ADL, 2020a).

It is not a secret that the connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans. Supremacists who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military. 

Boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen” as a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen.

Inspired By “The Turner Diaries”

The unrest related to pandemic restrictions appears to have significantly boosted the profile of the Boogaloo movement. The conspiracy theory that the US government is using the pandemic to restrict American citizens’ freedoms has been exacerbated far-right calls for a civil war. Some Boogaloo supporters also believe that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have helped raise awareness of their civil war narrative amongst wider populations (Crawford, 2020). Thus, Boogalooers have started articulating how COVID-19 could accelerate and enable the second civil war (ISD, 2020). As hardcore “accelerationists,” the Boogaloo Boys promote violence to speed up the collapse of society, and often seek to exploit moments of political or civil unrest, including widespread protests (Owen, 2020). 

“Accelerationism” is mainly based on William Luther Pierce’s 1978 novel “The Turner Diaries,” which is known as “the bible of the racist right” and a novelized blueprint for a white revolution (ADL, 2019) that would instigate a race war and bring about the federal government’s collapse (Valasik & Reid, 2020). The novel depicts the violent overthrow of the government of the US, nuclear conflagration, race war and the ultimate extermination of non-whites and “undesirable racial elements among the remaining white population” (Sarna, 2021). The widespread and extremely violent conflagration is also often called the “boogaloo” by its adherents (Inglis, 2021). Since publication, “The Turner Diaries” has inspired numerous violent acts, including the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Three years later, one of the attackers who murdered a black man in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998, also cited “The Turner Diaries” as his inspiration (Berger, 2016). 

The novel also features a secret group conspiring to create a “new world order.” This idea has taken numerous forms over the decades, from more anti-government beliefs about secret government conspiracies to race-based beliefs suggesting Jewish or minority-based cabals seeking to oppress, control, or replace the white race (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2020). These conspiracy theories are often adopted by groups with a more mainstream aesthetic and less overtly racist aims than their original creators. For instance, the term “white genocide” has given way to “the great replacement” to describe the idea that white people are being systematically replaced by non-whites in Western countries. This makes extreme ideas more palatable for a mainstream audience. Miller (2020) says the Boogaloo Boys have undergone a similar sanitation process.

On the other hand, according to Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020), memes such as the boogaloo appear as either cryptic jargon or recreational subcultures to both web users and security experts and, thus, seem an unlikely source for large-scale national security risks. “But it is precisely this unfamiliarity that should signal profound concern: Facing a similarly alien subculture of enthusiasts, national security pundits, the US Military, and intelligence and defence agencies, were entirely caught off guard at the rapid mobilization of ISIS and creation of the caliphate. Foreign fighters from all corners of the world—having little  knowledge of ISIS ideologies, religion, or cause—were quickly recruited from flash to bang through savvy social media outreach,” write the authors. They add: “According to our research, boogaloo enthusiasts, who refer to themselves as the ‘Boojahideen’ may have stolen a page from the ISIS’ playbook” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

Moreover, Brenton Tarrant’s “The Great Replacement” manifesto is the latest in a line of theories inspiring acts of domestic terrorism. In fact, prior to Tarrant’s manifesto, French author Renaud Camus released his 2012 book “Le Grand Remplacement,” arguing that immigrants are replacing European whites (Williams, 2017). These theories share a common theme of blending anti-government sentiments with racial bias to create dystopian images designed to inspire fear and violent acts (Berger, 2016). According to Amy Cooter of Vanderbilt University, some far-right groups have adopted “accelerationism” as “the idea that inducing chaos, provoking law enforcement, and promoting political tension will hasten the collapse of Western government, making room for them to establish a whites-only country” (Valasik & Reid, 2020). Therefore, the Boogaloo Boys have made police brutality one of their central issues (Owen, 2020).

Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic, hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray.

Conservative people from the far right movement, Proud Boys, and Boogaloo Boys join for a “Back the Blue” rally in Portland, Oregon/US on August 22, 2020. Photo: Robert P. Alvarez.

Accelerationist Boogalooers Infiltrate Protests As A Tactic 

Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic (Beeman, 2020), hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists. If violence can be increased sufficiently, the system will run out of lackeys and collapse, and the race war will commence (Byman, 2020). Accelerationists also take a nod from a Neo-Nazi, James Mason, who came into his ideas as a teenager in the 1960s and published a newsletter, Seige, from 1980 to 1986. Mason believed, “that only the full collapse of American democracy and society will bring conditions sufficient to bring order through Nazism” (Beeman, 2020). For accelerationism to succeed, traditional politics must fail. Dialogue, compromise, and steady progress are its enemies (Byman, 2020).

Despite the Boogaloo Boys creating a considerable sensation in recent times, no one has yet emerged as a “boogaloo” leader or a boogaloo spokesperson, and it’s far from clear how many people consider themselves affiliated with “boogaloo” ideology. As of April 2020, more than 100 “boogaloo” groups on Facebook had a total of more than 72,000 members, according to a report released by the Tech Transparency Project (2020). However, some of those users might be double-counted as members of multiple groups (Beckett, 2020). Nevertheless, it is a fact that the “boogaloo” boasts tens of thousands of social media users, exhibits a complex division of labour, evolves well-developed channels to innovate and distribute violent propaganda, deploys a complex communication network on extremist, mainstream, and dark web communities, and articulates a hybrid structure between lone-wolf and cell-like organization (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

On January 20, 2020, thousands descended on Richmond, Virginia, for the Virginia Citizens Defence League’s annual Lobby Day. As participants of the rally, the Boogaloo Boys donned Pepe the Frog iconography as well as patches evocative of the American flag emblazoned with an igloo in place of the 50 stars. Some Boogaloo members wore a skull balaclava, which is considered the face of 21st-century fascism. A participant boastfully declared on the Facebook page, “Some of the guys we were with aren’t exactly out of the military yet, so they had to keep their faces covered” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). It is not a secret that the connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans (Beran, 2020). White nationalists – people who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military (Inglis, 2021).

Military service has, traditionally, been a vehicle for marginalized individuals to make citizenship claims as a result of their military service (Burk, 1995). Yet extremist movements that run counter to integration and inclusion have also been attracted to military service – for a different reason. The links between the US military and white nationalists date back to the 1990s, with many believers seeing military service as an opportunity to hone their fighting skills and recruit others to their movements, particularly after serving (Belew, 2014). However, most Americans don’t know much about the level of white nationalism in the military (Spindel et al., 2020), while many do not view it as a serious problem. In particular, self-identified conservatives and those who hold highly favourable views toward the military are less likely to view white nationalism in the military as a serious problem (Ralston et al., 2020).

In 2017 and 2019, two Military Times polls found that about a fifth of respondents reported seeing signs of white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces (Shane, 2017, 2019). Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members (Shane, 2017). This figure jumped significantly in a 2020 poll, when 36 percent of participants reported seeing evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military (Shane, 2020). The 2019 survey additionally found that about 35 percent saw the problem of white nationalism as a significant threat to the country (Shane, 2019). 

Civilian leaders and the general public have reason to be concerned if the military becomes a fertile recruitment ground for violent and extremist groups (Holthouse, 2006; Levinson, 2019). White nationalists with military service have committed mass acts of deadly violence after leaving the military (Ralston et al., 2020). The issue of extremists in the ranks gained national attention in 2019 after the arrest of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, a former active-duty Marine and Army guardsman, who was plotting a mass murder of political and media figures (Shane, 2019).

The problem of white supremacy isn’t just limited to the military. “With their enormous power, department-issued weapons and access to sensitive information police departments have also become attractive recruiting grounds for white supremacist groups,” says Vida Johnson, a law professor at Georgetown University (Inglis, 2021).

Since 2019, at least 31 people affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have been charged with crimes, including those who killed two security and law enforcement officers in California in May and June 2020 (Beckett, 2020a), a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Brigety II, 2020; Thompson & Fischer, 2021), incidents related to the George Floyd protests, and the storming of the US Capitol building. All of the Boogaloo Boys arrested were white (Perper & Sheth, 2020). While the number of active and former military members is believed to be small when compared to the overall size of the movement, extremism researcher Kathleen Belew has stated that their participation “is not a problem we should take lightly” due to the threat that they could “dramatically escalate the impact of fringe activism, pass on explosives expertise, [or share] urban warfare expertise” (Owen, 2020a).

There are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterised as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts.

Armed protestors including Boogalooers arrive to support Donald Trumps baseless claims of election fraud in Lansing, Michigan, US on January 17, 2021. Photo: Lester Graham

Some Boogaloo Boys Are Explicit White Nationalists And Neo-Nazis 

The Boogaloo Boys is a loosely affiliated far-right movement that includes a variety of extremist factions and political views. According to Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business, there are always racialized and eugenic sub-themes in groups like the Boogaloo Boys. “It’s about who should live,” he said (Beckett, 2020). “You have everyone from neo-Nazis and white nationalists to libertarians,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. What unites them is their interest in having complete access to firearms, the belief that the country is heading towards a civil war (Jones, 2021), and that mass civil conflict of this kind is the only way for the country to correct its path. 

These anti-government beliefs have found support beyond the movement’s racist roots, making it adaptable and easily spread (SPLC, 2021). Boogaloo Boys urge people to rise up against the government, which they see as tyrannical and essentially irredeemable (Jones, 2021). TTP’s analysis also found that some members’ profiles include white supremacist content, including images of Adolf Hitler, despite other group members rejecting white supremacist ideology (Mathias, 2020). J. J. MacNab of George Washington University believes participants were radicalized elsewhere prior to donning a Hawaiian shirt. She claims the Boogaloo movement “isn’t really a movement. It’s a dress code, it’s a way of talking, it’s jargon” (MacNab, 2020).

The Boogaloo culture operates as a diffuse movement rather than a traditional group organizational structure, with a single leader presiding (SPLC, 2021). According to Alex Newhouse of Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, there are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterized as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts (Pineda, 2020Beran, 2020). While the white supremacist side veers into overt racism and makes no secret their desire for violence (Owen, 2020) the libertarian side takes offense at the “white supremacist” label (Pineda, 2020). Pineda argues that the group’s original members had ties to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, while many newer members are libertarian.

There’s no question that some Boogaloo Boys are explicit white nationalists and neo-Nazis who use the term “boogaloo” as a synonym for the coming race war. But there’s real disagreement, even among experts, about whether the Boogaloo movement as a whole should be described as “white supremacist.” Some members of the Boogaloo Boys even denouncewhite supremacists, saying they want to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter while other members make racist and anti-Semitic comments and mocked moderators for trying to be politically correct. However, numerous experts say that lip service from some Boogaloo supporters about wanting to be a multi-racial movement should not be taken seriously(Beckett, 2020a; SPLC, 2021). 

At the protests after George Floyd’s death, Boogaloo Boys were a conspicuous presence. Despite the members being overwhelmingly white, the movement has often presented itself as a race-blind. The Boogaloo meme itself emerged concurrently in white power online spaces in the early 2010s, today the term is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can build a new fascist state (Miller, 2020). It is true that Boogaloo Boys participated in the rallies, and a few even supposedly sported Black Lives Matter (BLM) patches and rainbow flag patches, in alleged support of the BLM movement and LGBTQ rights. However, it’s unclear how much of this support is genuine, and how much is simple political opportunism as the movement attempts to muddy ideological boundaries in order to triage their image and draw in more adherents (SPLC, 2021)  

Despite this ideological messiness, it is telling that most of the movement’s “martyrs” are white men and women killed at the hands of law enforcement. It was also a white man, Duncan Lemp, who first galvanized the movement – not the deaths of the thousands of Black people killed by police (SPLC, 2021). It is only white men who the Boogaloo Boys view as deserving of liberty and autonomy; their deaths at the hands of the state are evidence of tyranny and injustice, while the deaths of black people largely are not. Viewed from this perspective, the Boogaloo Bois’ effort to join the BLM protests reads as nothing more than political opportunism (Miller, 2020). The only place Boogaloo and BLM activists seem to overlap is in their anger toward law enforcement, but the source of their grievances, proposed remedies, and visions for the future are completely distinct (SPLC, 2021). One way to capture the complex dynamics of “Boogaloo” ideology is to label it as a broad anti-government movement that is full of white power activists, believes Belew. Like the militia movement of the 1990s, not everyone who participates in “Boogaloo” events or groups is necessarily a white power activist, she added. (Beckett, 2020a).

As part of a larger anti-establishment extremist movement in the US, the Boogaloo Boys includes militia and “patriot” organizations such as the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters, whose adherents have been implicated in bombings, murders and armed standoffs with federal law enforcement. Moreover, similar to other right-leaning extremist movements, the members of the movement are the product of an unhappy generation of young white men (SPLC, 2021)who compare their lot in life with that of men in previous decades and see their prospects diminishing. And with a mix of ignorance and simplicity, they view their discontent through the most distorted lens imaginable: internet memes (Beran, 2020). Therefore, like other most visible right-wing populist (RWP) social movements, the Boogaloo movement also prioritizes appealing to young male supporters (DeCook, 2018). Such appeals resonate with nationalist ideologies that emphasize traditional patriarchal gender relations and hostility to feminism and stand in opposition to the liberal, pluralist values purportedly advanced by “the elite” (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012).

Working-class And Low‐income Groups Form The Core

On the other hand, class remains one of the most striking indicators of support. Working‐class and low‐income groups have formed the core of the Boogaloo movement (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012). However, according to Beran (2020),Boogaloo Boys certainly do not face the economic disadvantages of the most marginalized groups in the US, but like the alt-right, they are unhappy enough to form their own radical identity politics of collective grievances. Lower educational achievement is also associated with an affinity for the movement (Gidron and Hall, 2017). Indeed, Boogalooers often use anti‐intellectualism as a tool, clumping elites and the educated together and encouraging a rejection of the “experts” (Merkley, 2020). What these men share is years of marginalization and a hatred of the present state of society (Beran, 2020).

It is not so abnormal for Boogaloo Boys to see the current federal government as illegitimate, while remaining deeply “patriotic.” They revere the Constitution and see themselves as the true descendants of America’s founding fathers. In their view, current US lawmakers are the equivalent of occupying British forces during the Revolutionary War. Among the “boogaloo” merchandise for sale online are images of George Washington armed with a modern, AR-15-style rifle (Beckett, 2020a). The Boogaloo Boys are entirely opposed to firearm regulations (SPLC, 2021).

“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” Trump tweeted on May 30, 2020. “Don’t lay the blame on others!” During Trump’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security claimed the Boogaloo movement was not right wing – a claim disputed by experts. Trump’s unwillingness to name and shame far-right groups publicly is not harmless (Bertnard, 2020).While some anarchists have embraced “Boogaloo” rhetoric, these are primarily “right-wing anarchists,” who believe in “unfettered capitalism” – not left-wing anarchists, says Mark Pitcavage of the ADL (Beckett, 2020a). Newhouse also says the Boogaloo movement is a far-right movement. The Guardian has reported that experts on extremism concur that the Boogaloo movement is right wing. Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst, believed the DHS’ claim that the Boogaloo movement is not right wing, was “playing politics” (Beckett, 2020). 

A clear sign that the Boogaloo Boys are right wing is their decision to show up with guns to guard private businesses, first during demonstrations against public health shutdown restrictions, and later during the protests over Floyd’s killing. Showing up with guns to protect big corporations from property damage is not something that most left-wing protesters would do (Beckett, 2020a). Thus, the claim that the Boogaloo Boys is not a right-wing movement does not reflect reality.

The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application.

Social Media (Facebook): Boogalooers’ Fertile Habitat

The Boogaloo Boys, which stemmed from memes in social media pro-gun groups, have organized through Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube (Pineda, 2020). However, the true birthplace of the movement is 4chan’s /k/ section (Evans & Wilson, 2020), which is ostensibly devoted to the ownership and purchase of weapons, from knives to fighter jets. Half-serious posts about how certain weapons might be employed in “the boogaloo” evolved over time. Like many memes on 4chan, each new version was more cryptic than the last, a means to express insider knowledge and in-group status (Beran, 2020). 

One example of this is how “Boogaloo,” itself a euphemism, has been further disguised with the use of soundalike terms like “big luau” and “big igloo.” The term “icehouse” is yet another synonym for the term, descended from the “Big Igloo” variation (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Even the co-option of Hawaiian imagery and igloos is inherently cynical and meaningless. There is no connection to the group’s ideology outside of the linguistic resemblance of the word “boogaloo” to “igloo” or “luau.” But this co-option fits the ethos of online spaces perfectly, with a niche group celebrating its anti-government views by draping them in colourful jokes and nonsense that can be endlessly remixed and reinterpreted (Beran, 2020). 

The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application, where the #Boogaloo hashtag had over two million views as of June 2020 (Owen, 2020b). 

Some of the most active Boogaloo communities were on Discord, a chat program popular among online gamers (Bertnard, 2020). However, following media coverage – which included screenshots of a Discord server where members of the military were sharing their expertise – Discord shut down the server and deleted the accounts of its members. The community created and migrated to a subreddit after their removal from Discord, but Reddit banned the subreddit shortly afterward (Rodriguez, 2020). The website Tree of Liberty, which described itself as the “press platform” for the Boogaloo movement, was also taken offline by its cloud hosting provider on January 12, 2021 (Mac & Haskins, 2020). A Twitter spokesperson said that Twitter views Boogaloo content as free expression and does not ban accounts solely for their use of the term, but that they had banned numerous accounts that used the term for violating other policies.

The Boogaloo Boys have used social media to strategise, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass.

The Boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan.

4chan Birthed Boogalooers, Facebook Helped To Grow 

Though 4chan birthed the Boogaloo Boys, above all, it is Facebook that has helped the group grow (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Researchers have repeatedly drawn attention to Facebook’s role in radicalizing extremist actors, and the consequences of allowing extremists to organize freely on the platform, to little practical avail. Research by the TTP showed that there were at least 125 Facebook groups devoted to the Boogaloo movement on April 22, 2020. The real number has since increased significantly, although determining an exact number is all but impossible due to the rapid evolution of the subculture (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Online extremists have used Facebook to plan and organize for a militant uprising in the US as they cast coronavirus lockdowns as a sign of rising government suppression (Pineda, 2020). NCRI researchers, who analysed more than 100 million social media posts and comments, found that through the use of memes extremists have pushed anti-government and anti-law enforcement messages across social media platforms. They have also organized online communities with tens of thousands of members, some of whom have assembled at real-world events (Zadrozny, 2020). Facebook management has long understood its role in promoting extremism but have elected not to act for fear of alienating conservative sensibilities, especially in the US (Evans & Wilson, 2020). 

The Boogaloo Boys have used social media to “strategize, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass,” according to the NCRI report. The report also notes how the boogaloo concept has been monetized, through merchandise advertised through Facebook and Instagram ads, and marketed to current and former members of the military (Zadrozny, 2020). A range of boogaloo-related phrases emerged as the term became more popular in social media, including: “showing up for the boogaloo,” “when the boogaloo hits,” “being boogaloo ready” and “bring on the boogaloo.” Boogaloo-related hashtags have surfaced, including #boogaloo2020, #BigIgloo, #boojahideen, and #boogaloobois. The boogaloo meme soon spread from angry gun-rights activists to the militia movement and survivalists. The Telegram channel, “Boogaloo: How to Survive,” claims to show “how to survive in a post-society world through understanding the psychology of violence, attaining resources, and organizing to accomplish post society tasks” (ADL, 2019).

On public Facebook pages, Boogalooers circulate satirical posts about the overthrow of government, painting the Boogaloo as a viral online phenomenon rather than a real-world threat. But communications of boogaloo supporters in private Facebook groups accessed by TTP tell a different story: extremists exchanging detailed information and tactics on how to organize and execute a revolt against American authorities. This activity is occurring without any apparent intervention by Facebook. TTP found 125 Facebook groups devoted to the “boogaloo.” In several private boogaloo Facebook groups, members discussed tactical strategies, combat medicine, and various types of weapons, including how to develop explosives and the merits of using flame throwers (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). One group even shared a document detailing how to disrupt US government supply lines and discussing the possible need to assassinate government officials (Mathias, 2020). Some Boogalooers see the public health lockdowns and other directives by states and cities across the country as a violation of their rights, and they’re aiming to harness public frustration at such measures to rally and attract new followers to their cause (Tech Transparency Project, 2020).

A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found that “COVID-19 is being used to advance calls for the ‘boogaloo,’” and that two boogaloo-related Facebook groups have seen large spikes in engagement. One of the groups, Big Igloo Bois, saw an 88 percent jump in interactions in March 2020, according to the study (ISD, 2020). Moreover, Trump’s tweets about liberating Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota appear to have energized some elements of the Boogaloo movementAmong the most popular boogaloo-themed pages on Facebook is Thicc Boog Line, a boogaloo clothing brand that has attracted nearly 30,000 followers since its October 2019 founding (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). 

Despite many warnings from reporters and civil society organizations and employing 350 people on staff devoted to stopping people and organizations from using its platform to plot or engage in violence (Mathias, 2020), Facebook failed to remove the violent content proliferating on Boogaloo-related groups for months – enough time for the disjointed movement to congeal, organize, and grow its ranks (SPLC, 2021). Eventually, on May 1, 2020, Facebook and Instagram both updated their “violence and incitement” policy to ban the use of the term Boogaloo and related words when they occur alongside images or statements depicting or urging armed violence (Evans & Wilson, 2020; Pineda, 2020) and designated a network of “Boogaloo” groups as a dangerous organization similar to the ISIS (Beckett, 2020a). 

However, at the same time, research suggests that this policy has done virtually nothing to curb either the growth of the Boogaloo movement or reduce the violence of its rhetoric. Facebook remains a hospitable place for would-be insurrectionists, and it buried evidence that its platform facilitates the growth of extremism, due to a fear that combatting this would be seen as anti-conservative bias. But every day, tens of thousands of heavily armed people log on to repeat their hope for an American civil war (Evans & Wilson, 2020).

According to researchers, the Facebook groups were particularly dangerous, because they were helping to build local connections between nascent domestic extremists. The company removed 220 Facebook accounts, 95 Instagram accounts, 28 pages, and 106 groups as parts of the Boogaloo-affiliated network “after there were already bodies.” Some experts said it was too late: the scattered men drawn to the idea of being soldiers in an insurgency against the American government had already connected with each other directly (Beckett, 2021). In the wake of Facebook’s targeted takedown, Boogalooers have encouraged each other to avoid using old nicknames originally used to bypass censorship, phrases like “luau,” “igloo,” or “boog,” in favour of new ones, like “fiesta” (ADL, 2020b).

After Facebook started to de-platform Boogaloo adherents on June 30, 2020, amidst a boycott in which companies including Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Volkswagen announced they would no longer advertise on the platform due to “the hate speech and misinformation that persists on Facebook” (Menn, 2020; Collins & Zadrozny, 2020), many Boogalooers retreated to other social media platforms. However, some took an alternative path: rebranding their movement on Facebook using the names of prominent media companies. As part of this rebranding effort, Boogalooers on Facebook started to share memes and posts referring to the boogaloo as “NBC,” “Fox News,” and “Vice.” Yet no nickname has been adopted as widely as “CNN,” which has boogaloo supporters referring to themselves as “CNN bois” and using #CNN to refer to the Boogaloo itself (ADL, 2020b).

Boogalooers believe that emmeshing their cause with a popular brand will make it more difficult for Facebook to remove their content. While Facebook has already removed several of these pages, this latest episode illustrates how quickly the Boogaloo movement is able to adapt and demonstrates the need for continued monitoring to stem the spread of its violent messageApparently, Boogalooers are better positioned than more formalized groups to adapt to new conditions, because the movement is focused on a concept, not a centralized organization. The name of the group is secondary (ADL, 2020b).

Right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s death helped solidify the nascent Boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture and galvanized their anti-police stance.

Violence: Boogalooers Target Police As Most Accessible Symbol Of Government

As Mudde (2021) notes, far-right extremism has generally been ignored in the US despite the DHS warning that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan might be particular targets for recruitment by extremist groups (DHS, 2009). The report sparked a conservative backlash, which accused the Obama administration of unfairly targeting conservatives and veterans. The situation has gotten worse since. In their effort to create an all-white country, the far-right extremists, including the Boogaloo Boys, often instigate violent confrontations that target racial and religious minorities (Spindel et al., 2020). Especially since 2018, far-right extremists have conducted more lethal attacks than any other domestic extremist movement (DHS, 2020). A CSIS report stated that the right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the US in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020 (Bertnard, 2020; Weiner, 2020).

As was expected, the military and police departments have been infiltrated and compromised by far-right sympathizers. Nearly one in five defendants in Capitol storming cases have served in the military (Mudde, 2021). In parallel, Boogalooers also generate and share memes glorifying the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, and jittery graphics that borrow from the aesthetics of Atomwaffen and other overtly white supremacist accelerationist groups (Green, 2020). The war in Ukraine has attracted hundreds of foreign fighters with ties to the far-right who use the battlefield as a networking space. That includes dozens of Americans, some of whom have come home with new contacts and fighting experience. Outside Ukraine, white supremacist training camps exist in Poland, Bulgaria, and even the UK, and many white supremacist organizations operate transnationally (Weiner, 2020).

Boogalooers consider the police, which is the most accessible symbol of the government at public gatherings (Jones, 2021), an arm of the state that is enforcing “tyrannical” laws and directives. They foment this anti-law enforcement sentiment with references to past violent incidents as evidence of the government’s willingness to kill people who oppose its laws (ADL, 2020a). They refer to police as “soup bois” because federal agencies sometimes are referred to as “alphabet soup” due to their varied acronyms (Dazio, 2020). Boogaloo Facebook groups regularly featured jokes about men filling their lawn sprinklers with gasoline to light the police on fire (Beckett, 2021). One meme, posted in April 2020, showed a person in a helicopter shooting down at feral pigs on the ground with the caption “pig hunting: now.” The next image, captioned “pig hunting: boogaloo,” showed the same person shooting at cops (Miller, 2020). “If you look at their online spaces, their rhetoric is extremely violent,” SPLC’s Miller said. “A lot of it is kind of under this veneer of irony and humour, but there’s something very real to all of it,” (Jones, 2021).

Boogalooers have used the Files function in Facebook groups to upload dozens of planning documents, including military manuals, CIA handbooks, and instructions on how to reuse N95 facemasks, among other material. The most concerning document is one entitled Yeetalonians, a reference to the Boogaloo. At over 133 pages, the document provides an in-depth look at preparing for the Boogaloo and offers advice on what weapons should be used, what propaganda to distribute, and how to psychologically win over civilians to the cause. The document mentions “target selection,” noting that assassinations of figureheads are “overrated” but “some people have to go.” It discusses how to disrupt US government supply lines, noting that “national guard depots, police stations and factories that produce munitions are all very solid targets,” (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). According to the TTP report, the group engages in national-level coordination, as state and local chapters are where users share tactical information and survival tips, ranging from topographic map access to instructions for evading authorities (Mathias, 2020).

An assessment dated June 15, 2020, predicted that “violent adherents of the boogaloo ideology likely reside in the National Capital Region, and others may be willing to travel far distances to incite civil unrest or conduct violence encouraged in online forums associated with the movement.” It also noted that “while it identifies Washington D.C. as an attractive target, the Boogaloo ideology is not restricted to a specific region and those who wish to cause division are routinely using peaceful protests as means of cover” (Bertnard, 2020). 

Right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s death helped solidify the nascent Boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture and galvanized their anti-police stance (SPLC, 2021). Police carrying out a search warrant shot and killed the 21-year-old Lemp during a SWAT raid in March 2020. Lemp’s family said he was killed while he was asleep in his bedroom. Groups honouring Lemp popped up in far-right internet spaces (Miller, 2020). In March 2020, a Missouri man (Timothy Wilson, 36) with ties to neo-Nazis was shot and killed when FBI agents tried to arrest him. Wilson told an undercover FBI agent that his goal was “to kick-start a revolution” and referred to his plans as “operation boogaloo” (Pineda, 2020). In May 2020, three Boogaloo members were arrested on terrorism-related charges in what federal prosecutors say was a conspiracy to spark violence during protests in Las Vegas over reopening businesses and Floyd’s death. Authorities allege the three white men filled gas cans and made Molotov cocktails in glass bottles and were headed to a BLM protest (Komenda, 2020).

During the riots in May 2020, after Floyd’s death, FBI agents got a tip that two members of the Boogaloo Boys had armed themselves. The suspects were talking about killing police officers and attacking a National Guard armoury to steal heavy weapons. The FBI deployed an undercover informant who posed as a member of Hamas and offered to help the suspects obtain explosives and training. After the suspects started talking about a plot to attack a courthouse, agents arrested them (Rotella, 2021). These cases show that, among others, violent instigators affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, (Pineda, 2020) for their own purposes (Valasik & Reid, 2020).

Far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilised post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities.

Anti-Mask Rally at the Ohio Statehouse – Boogaloo Boy infiltrates the counter-protest in Columbus, Ohio/US on July 18. 2020. Photo: Dan Fleckner.

Conclusion

The Boogaloo movement is part of a broader rise in far-right extremism in the US, as was predicted in the early years of the Obama presidency. US law enforcement agencies and the military have faced criticism for doing too little to monitor and prevent the radicalization of American citizens by violent white supremacists and other domestic right-wing extremists (Beckett, 2021) such as the Boogaloo Boys (or Bois). 

The pandemic has also been a fertile ground for far-right messaging, opening new platforms to radical activists and extremist movements. Violent extremists across the ideological spectrum have exploited the pandemic to take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, desperate, and available—relegated to their homes with little to distract them aside from surfing the Web. The dearth of large public gatherings and crowds moved the terrorism battlefield inside and online. But with an anti-government message designed for online virality, twenty-first-century extremists and accelerationists were especially well positioned to profit from this shift (Weiner, 2020). 

As Crawford (2020) underlined, while it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of this trend, it is possible to sell some elements of far-right ideology, like the Boogaloo, to more mainstream audiences. Shifting those people away from these ideas may be as difficult as tackling the virus itself (Crawford, 2020). And the evidence so far suggests that the movement has succeeded in spreading its message – a message that can, as the recent arrests of Boogaloo movement adherents show, all too easily turn into real life threats (Weiner, 2020). While adapting themselves to the times, as Hinton (2021) noted, far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilized post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities

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Supporters of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wave party flags during an election rally in Istanbul on June 3, 2015.

The AKP’s Authoritarian, Islamist Populism: Carving out a New Turkey

The global tide of populism will leave a profound mark on Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) success during the past two decades, has hinged on Islamist authoritarian populism and been driven by its long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “New Turkey” is now a reality. The AKP has been successful at dismantling the Kemalist ideals – ironically, perhaps, by using similarly repressing techniques, such as cracking down on civil liberties and democratic rights.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

The Survival of Islamic Parties in Turkey

The Republic of Turkey was born in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a symbol of power in the Muslim world for over six centuries. The decay and eventual collapse of the Ottomans following the First World War left the former Ottoman populace facing an identity crisis. With the monarchy disbanded, Turkey embarked on a transformative journey –a new republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is credited with moulding the country in his image. The “Kemalist” ideology hinges on six pillars: republicanism, nationalism, statism, populism, laicism, and reformism, all standing in sharp contrast with traditional Ottoman Muslim culture (Los Angeles Times, 1991)

For approximately eight decades, Kemalism prevailed as the state’s main narrative, with its intense focus on a homogeneous nation rooted in Turkish identity and disassociated from its Ottoman past. However, since the core of Ottoman rule was religion – the Ottoman Empire was the last remnant of the “caliphate” – the new Republic isolated a large number of conservative citizens. The focus on nationalism also isolated a significant number of non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-Turks. 

The leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially positioned itself as a populist party that voiced the anxieties and grievances of the populace by not only representing the conservative factions but also a number of individuals/groups who felt rejected by Kemalist principles.

Yet, during its two decades in power, the AKP has increasingly identified with the “black Turks,” those who felt excluded by the politics of the “white Turks.” However, this has merely isolated the “white Turks.” Power, in contemporary Turkey, now rests with religiously “pure” Sunni-Turks predominantly from Anatolia. This populace embraces their “glorious” Ottoman past and seeks vengeance for decades of being wronged by Western powers and the “white Turks,” who are held up as representatives of Western ideals.  These “black Turks” – deeply religious, predominantly Anatolian Sunni Muslims – are “the people.”   

The AKP has been successful at manoeuvring its way into power by tapping into the population’s latent anxiety, paranoia, resentment, a sense of victimhood. The party has further divided Turkey between “the people” and “the other.” Increasingly, it uses the same tactics to defend its autocratic tendencies (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP’s populism has gradually eroded Kemalist nationalism, birthing a new institutionalized narrative for Turkish citizenry – a “New Turkey” (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). The AKP has constructed this counter ideology using autocratic populism legitimized by Islamist nationalism (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

The AKP is the first successful modern Islamist party to complete its term in power, in Turkey. Formed in 2001, the party comes from a line of members who have either been directly involved with or influenced by a series of right-wing ideologies, primarily from Necmettin Erbakan and his political parties. Erbakan’s Milli Gorus (National View) had, since the 1970s, given a generation of Turkish politicians a right-wing, pan-Islamic inspiration and direction. Milli Gorus focused on calling Muslims to save Islam from becoming lost in Western values, thus calling Muslim “brothers” to unite in their efforts against the quote “Zionist” lobby. Erbakan, throughout his life, was a vocal critic of the West and “Zionists.” He was known for his anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic statements: 

All Infidel nations are one Zionist entity”; “Jews want to rule from Morocco to Indonesia”; “The Zionists worked for 5,767 years to build a world order in which all money and power depend on Jews”; “The US dollar is Zionist money”; “The Jewish ‘bacteria’ must be diagnosed for a cure to be found”; “Zionists initiated the Crusades”; “Jews founded Protestantism and the Capitalist order”; “Bush attacked Iraq to build Greater Israel, so Jesus can return” (Vielhaber, 2012).

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. 

Founding members of the AKP, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc, were raised on such rhetoric. They would eventually belong to the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP). The FP was banned for violations against the constitution, which protected the Kemalist ideology. The disbanded members of the FP formed two separate parties – the AKP and the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP) (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015)

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. Not only did Sunni Muslim factions feel marginalized, but so too did Kurds (15-20 percent of the country’s population) and Alevi (10-15 percent of the population). These groups were institutionally discriminated against or denied recognition, all in an effort to form a singular Turkish identity. This would be an ideal citizen, the secularized Sunni Turk (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017)

Widespread discrimination created resentment against the Kemalist governments. The AKP found an opportunity in this growing discontentment. It emerged as a “Muslim Democrat” party that would represent the discontented Sunni conservatives and historically marginalized ethnic and religious factions. In 2001, the AKP broke away from the Milli Gorus doctrine and positioned itself as a centre-right party. It was for the people and an answer to the rifts within society. 

While the AKP took a more reformist agenda with younger leaders from the former party, SP was led by Erbakan and a group of older Sunni Muslim men who stood by their hard-line views rooted in Milli Gorus. The AKP craftily separated itself as a reformed religiously “moderate” democratic party that offered an alternative to the status quo – the promise of liberalized Islamic democracy. One of Erdogan’s statement shows how he viewed the new party: “We don’t need bearded men who are good Koran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019).

The February 28, 1997, came down hard on Islamists and other non-Kemalist parties. The AKP’s earliest version used this oppression to position itself as a better alterative compared to the “secular elite” led by the military establishment. It became the voice of “the people”: Erdogan promised the party was dedicated to the welfare of the people rather than any ideology or personal agendas. “A cadre will run the party,” he said, “and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” 

His role was that of an “orchestra chief,” in his own words. The “age of me-centred politics is over,” he insisted (Genc, 2019). The AKP cautiously stepped into the corridors of power in 2002, winning 34.28 percent of the vote and defeating the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP). The military took a “wait and see” approach to the AKP; as a Turkish diplomat in 2002 said: “Erdogan knows what will happen if he oversteps a line.” 

Tip of the Iceberg: Two Sides of the AKP  

The performance of the AKP during its initial years hinged on making Turkey a prosperous nation – it was what their reformist agenda promised. They needed to make the economy strong, improve public welfare, and make Turkey a “bridge” between East and West. However, over the years this promise disintegrated and the AKP evolved into a populist authoritarian party. 

In 2007, to secure a second term in office, the AKP showed an early sign of its populism. Under Kemalist principles, to modernize and secularize society, women were barred from wearing a headscarf in public offices and educational institutions. The AKP predominantly represented Muslims; the potential first lady wore a headscarf. This was a point of contention –a clash of two ideologies, between the Kemalists and the AKP. As the AKP sought to reverse this ban, they were met by harsh criticism from the military, a digital campaign called “a digital coup”, and massive “Republican Rallies” in major cities calling out the increasing role of Islam in the supposedly secular fabric of Turkish society. 

In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process.

The ceremony of Third Bosphorus bridge was attended by then Turkish President Abdullah Gul and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 29, 2013 in Istanbul. Photo: Sadik Gulec

 

In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process. It very successfully played to the victimhood and fear of its conservative voter base, which had felt always coerced by the “westernized” military trying to impose “un-Islamic” principles on them. It also played the “humanitarian” card, where it defended freedom to practice one’s religion. As Hayrünnisa Gül explained, “There are not more headscarves than before; the headscarf-clad women have begun to be more active and as a result of this, more visible in social life” (Elver, 2014). The AKP won a second term with even more votes than in 2002. 

The AKP’s second term saw the infamous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. These were the AKP’s first moves to ensure that the Kemalist institutions could no longer threaten the party. The trials targeted Kemalist military generals and their accomplices, who were accused of plotting a coup against “the people.” During these trials, the AKP successfully used anti-Kemalist media propaganda and the anxieties of the Turkish people who had been denied freedoms by the “elite and military.” They needed the judiciary to “set an example” of those who tried to interfere with democracy. 

The trials were the preamble to the AKP’s 2010 Constitutional Referendum, which proposed a number of amendments to the Turkish constitution. In the build-up to the vote, the AKP increasingly positioned Kemalist institutions, like the military and judiciary, as the “enemy of the people” through Sledgehammer and Ergenekon. The 2010 referendum limited the military’s power and also paved way for more political control over the judiciary. It also financially benefitted the pseudo-capitalist AKP by allowing businesspeople with tax debts to go overseas (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Şahin & Hayirali, 2010). Essentiality, “the others” were defeated in favour of “the people.” The vote, to conservatives, represented that the “White Turks” had been dealt with – a reward for the former’s decades of suffering and humiliation during the Kemalist era. 

There was a marked change in the AKP’s posture following 2010. In early 2013, the Gezi Park protesters were brutally dealt with, and, to deflect criticism, the AKP painted them as “enemies” of the people. After this point, any opposition directed towards the AKP was “otherized” through a host of conspiracy theories playing on fear and paranoia. The Gezi Park protests, which began as a movement against the government’s plans to convert the public park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square into real-estate development, were peaceful – until riot police arrived and brutalized the protestors (Julia, 2018).

Civilians were visiting the Gezi Park and Taksim Square during Gezi Park protests at night. Photo: Ipek Morel

 

These peaceful protests were a symbol of resistance against the AKP’s clientelism, Islamism, and increasing autocratic tendencies. The riot police’s intervention led to many arrests and the deaths of 11 individuals. In the party’s defence, Erdogan emphasized that the protestors were Western sponsored liberal “terrorists,” who opposed development. He said, “we need to be courageous,” in defence of the riot police’s actions. Thus, civil society was deemed pro-Western, foreign-sponsored “terrorism” – in stark opposition to the “black Turks,” who were pious, pure, and dedicated to the party and state. The two – party and state – had become entwined, as the AKP was the flagship of faith and hope for security and prosperity (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017).                

The AKP’s first two terms were marked by several welfare-centric policies and public works that were promoted by the government, which helped it maintain the people’s confidence. This period saw a huge flux of neo-liberal reforms – including privatizing the public sector, which promised improved service delivery, and infrastructure development. These reforms drastically improved the country’s socio-economic standing in less than a decade. 

While these measures temporally improved conditions, in reality, they were – and are – being used as means to an end by the AKP. The party has currently plunged the country into an economic crisis, with inflation rates touching 12 percent and the Turkish lira drastically reduced against the US dollar. The crisis has only been made worse by the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown (BBC, 2020).      

Crony capitalism obscured by welfare-ism and neo-liberal reforms has placed AKP loyalists in various businesses, reinforcing a strong support (and donor) base for the party. The AKP uses state institutions as revenue collection bodies. Privatization and public procurement offices reward loyalists and punish opposition-owned or aligned businesses (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Recklessly seeking financing for mega infrastructure projects has increased the public debt, yet the showcase projects have appealed to the general public. AKP supporters often espouse the view, “Sure, he may be stealing, but look at the new airports, hospitals, roads and bridges!” (Bilici, 2020). In other words, through such public investments, corruption is made socially acceptable. Thus, the AKP has successfully made visible changes to show that it has been doing something for the people, all while rewarding its loyalists and punishing opposition groups within the business and media communities. 

The AKP’s corruption was widely exposed for the first time in the December 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. In a leaked phone call between Erdogan and his son Bilal, they discussed how the father was not pleased with a bribe of USD 10 million being offered by Sıtkı Ayan, a fossil fuel company owner. Erdogan, who was then Prime Minister, urged his son, “Others can bring it, so why can’t he, huh? Who do they think is? But they are falling now, they’ll fall on our laps, don’t worry!” (Bilici, 2020). This bribe won Ayan and his petro-company a bid to construct a natural gas pipeline connecting Iran and Turkmenistan to Europe; in addition to winning the contract, the company was granted a huge state subsidy excepting it from various taxes (Bilici, 2020). A clear pattern is visible where the Treasury guarantees various loyal businesspersons when they try to access European banks for growth and investment (Bilici, 2020).  

A few months earlier, the AKP launched an attack on another civil society group: it labelled a pluralistic Islamic organization, known internationally as the Gulen Movement, as an enemy of the people. This attack was done to deflect attention from the government’s corruption, shifting the public’s attention. It was an autocratic move disguised as populism. Those who took up further investigations were soon purged by the AKP government. As the AKP gained more power, the identity of the “other” was constantly shifting – from Kemalists and “White Turks” to Gulenists, all of whom were used as scapegoats to divert attention from AKP corruption and to eliminate future opposition. 

Following the corruption probe, thousands of police officers, judges, and prosecutors were purged from their jobs – allegedly for “spying” on the government. Gulenists were accused of having erected a parallel structure within the state, undermining the AKP’s “pure” efforts. The government claimed members of this parallel structure had fabricated the corruption scandal. A potential critic was once more silenced through autocratic means. 

Another example of the AKP using populism to further its position in power revolves around its shattered hopes to join the European Union (EU). During its first two terms, the AKP faced pressure to meet EU membership requirements. To do so, the AKP not only needed to show that Turkey was financially prosperous – at that time, the country was on the road to achieving it – but it also had to comply with liberal democratic values. Its “Muslim Democrat” image was useful – it potentially offered a successful hybrid of Islam and liberal democratic values (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017). However, post-2013, the AKP’s increasing autocratic tendencies and the EU’s disinterest in Turkish accession have ensured that the AKP is not shy about its Islamist autocratic behaviours.  

Alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The AKP government appointed trustees to Zaman Media Group in Istanbul on March 4, 2016.

 

To hide its crony capitalism, the AKP has not only targeted civil society but also punished several media entities who have proved critical of the government. A prominent example is the Ipek Media Group, a media house which was even charged in court for “causing terrorism.” The media house was brutally raided, with police breaking windows and firing tear gas. The result of the charges led to a trial and subsequently the company was stripped of a significant number of subsidiaries that were given to public officials and its operation was handed out to designated “loyal” AKP trustees. The 2016 coup attempt led to the total shutdown of Ipek Media Group and forced the family to flee overseas, as members of the family were sentenced to as many as 79 years in prison for allegedly being members of a “terrorist group” (Bilici, 2020)

Thus, alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The autocratic tendencies have spread to the international sphere, too. In the spirit of liberal democracy, the AKP during its first term offered to launch a joint investigation with Armenia, a “fact finding” regarding the genocide which Turkey has denied for decades. The Ottoman genocide of the Armenian population has always been a controversial topic in Turkey; the previous Kemalist regimes and governments refused to recognize it. Armenia refused the AKP’s offer and demanded outright recognition (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Over the next decade, as Turkey’s EU hopes faded, the AKP used the Turkey-Armenia rivalry to gather populist support at home.

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.”

The party has also practiced “trans-populism.” In 2020, the AKP involved itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia (BBC, 2020). In a proxy-war facilitated by Azerbaijan, Turkey emerged as a “strong” Muslim nation, militarily boosting its neo-Ottoman claims at home and allowing the AKP to distract the Turkish people from the country’s dire economic situation. By claiming a victory for “the pure people” and the “ummah,” the AKP bolstered its Islamist image and justified its foreign interventions.  

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.” For example, in 2015, the AKP strained relations with the Kurds by dismantling a truce with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); the party needed a new antagonist to divert attention for the party’s own failures (Karadeniz, 2015; Smith, 2005). Erdogan justified his government’s actions by positioning pro-Kurdish factions in the society as a threat: “It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood” (Karadeniz, 2015). The end of the truce meant that domestic terrorism rose in the country, creating the need for a party that was “tough.” Of course, the AKP fit the bill. 

The Kurds – specifically the PKK – had already been side-lined under previous Kemalist governments. Even speaking Kurdish can land a person in jail in Turkey. But the AKP drummed up a security conflict to make the populace feel threatened and insecure, ensuring that people desired a “strongman” party to once again lead them out of this “crisis” (Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP’s use of penal populism is not limited to Kurdish separatist groups. To curb opposition political parties, the AKP has craftily extended this “threat” to encompass not just “terrorist” Kurdish separatists but also any party that is sympathetic to the ethnic group. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) routinely secured a significant number of votes in local elections, helped mediate the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, and, in the 2015 parliamentary elections, briefly became the third largest party in the country. Following the 2016 coup attempt, the HDP has been widely persecuted by the AKP based on allegations of “ties” to the PKK (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP has successfully used security crises as a pretext to use state institutions of law and order to persecute potential political opposition. After the HDP’s decision to defy Erdogan and enter the next election, Erdogan started the re-certification of the HDP, saying, “I visited 5 cities, the mayors of which were members of HDP. None of those mayors came to welcome me. Because they had orders from the mountains. They are commanded by the mountains. They have no will of their own.”[1]

Here he is referring to the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK’s headquarters are, implying that the HDP mayors – who underwent security checks and clearances by Turkish judicial institutions and intelligence agencies before the elections and were democratically elected – were terrorists. 

The AKP’s shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Hagia Sophia was converted into the mosque by the Erdogan regime in Turkey on July 10, 2020. After that, several groups have celebrated the decision in front of Hagia Sophia. Photo: Ugur Ferhat Baloglu

 

In a similar vein, the AKP had promised to return properties seized from various minority groups, including the Holy Cross Armenian Cathedral on Akdamar Isle in Van Lake and the re-opening of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir. These promises became a token of good faith. Erdogan even said, “The times when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religion, ethnic origin, or different way of life are over” (Sheklian, 2018; Arsu, 2011). However, when faced with a severe economic crisis and other policy failures, the AKP instead chose to rely on Islamic populism to solidify its support. In 2020, the two iconic Istanbul churches were converted from museums to mosques, the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Serhan, 2020). 

Hagia Sophia’s first congregational prayers after its reconversion were led by Erdogan himself and Ali Erbas, the head of Diyanet (the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs). Erbas said, “The reopening of Hagia Sophia… is the return of a sacred place, which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original function.” This conveniently denied the church’s rich past tracing back to Byzantium (Dawn, 2020).

This shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire. In this instance, the AKP promises retributive justice for the wronged “Black Turks” by restoring what is rightfully theirs.     

After more than a decade in power, the AKP lost its Parliamentary majority in 2015. However, it maintained significant control through the presidential office, which Erdogan had assumed. To undo the effects of the 2015 elections, a number of “disasters” took place, always orchestrated by the “enemies” of the Turkish people. Erdogan called an early election due to PKK terrorism and the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists (Cornell, et al, 2015). Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the AKP was able to consolidate nearly all political and legal power in its hands. 

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy and other policy failures. Fethullah Gulen, once viewed as an AKP ally, had been public enemy number one since the fallout after the 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. The AKP accused Gulen and his followers of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country (BBC, 2020)

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country. Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through a constitutional referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one.

A military coup attempt plunged Turkey into a long night of violence and intrigue on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.

 

Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This change gave Erdogan – now president – the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). The AKP had successfully used populism to prey on the populace’s fears and insecurities. The party had also succeeded at labelling all opposition – Kemalists, Gulenists, civil society, political parties, and the media – as threats to the country. Thus, the government justified the highly inhumane and undemocratic arrests carried out following the failed coup. 

As part of this purge, the AKP seized media companies and educational centres. The party understood these institutions posed a threat to its populism. The organizations were shuttered or became AKP mouth pieces. Post-July 2016, the AKP took over or closed down all educational institutions associated with the Gulen Movement. The institutes taken over have been given to pro-AKP NGOs or the Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP government also used it ties with certain countries to extradite Gulen employees living abroad, close foreign Gulen-affiliated school, and re-open the schools under control of loyal NGOs or other organizations (Aljazeera, 2016).

The AKP has effectively used terror to sow multiple conspiracy theories to delegitimize the “others.” Not only has the government accused Gulen of masterminding the coup attempt, but it also claims the Gulen Movement is funded by the United States and bent on destroying Turkey. 

Excuses like this create an external enemy while also covering up AKP failures. For instance, the former Finance Minister explained why the Turkish currency was so devalued by blaming, without any evidence, foreign conspirators: “Some countries are in [on] this scheme, as well as financial institutions and the interest rate lobby. These include some Muslim countries, too. I will not name names here, I am only drawing the framework” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2018). Thus, America and the “Jewish lobby,” along with its Gulf allies and Saudi Arabia, are the biggest “enemies.” 

This myth is further legitimized in the public view when it is linked to the Treaty of Sèvres, which partitioned Ottoman territories among European powers (this was followed three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne, which created the Republic of Turkey, but also disconnected it from its Muslim past). Thus, capitalizing on this past trauma, the AKP has incited fear of “outside conspiracies” that seek to destabilize the country. The country hides behind these conspiracies while also using them to solidify its base. 

According to the AKP’s narrative, reinforced through its nearly total control of the media and the Diyanet, “New Turkey” is destined for greatness. Erdogan, in recent years, has vowed “not to make the same mistakes again” in reference to facing “defeat” at the hands of the Western-Jewish lobby. In one of his speeches, he made this explicit: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share in Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream of doing the same about the Republic of Turkey… We tear up the scenarios of those who want to besiege our country politically, economically, and militarily … To those who are surprised by Turkey’s rising again, like a giant who woke up from its century-old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!” (Global Village Space, 2020).

The AKP has crafted a “New Turkey,”  a country populated by paranoid, insecure, vengeful, and conservative Muslims. As opposed to the stigma attached to traditional ways of life under Kemalism, the AKP’s “New Turkey” has created space for the Sunni Muslim citizen to fully embrace his or her religious heritage.

A Supporter of ruling AKP holds party flags during an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey on June 3, 2015. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

The AKP and its ‘New Turkey’ 

The AKP has always been the party of Erdogan. The pre-2017 Turkish constitution highlighted that anyone selected as President must abandon his/her affiliation with any political parties and remain impartial. However, when Erdogan was elected president, in 2014, he ignored this. Even after his election as president, he did not fully separate himself from the AKP. He wanted to rule over the party through proxies. For example, fearing of losing his influence on the party, Erdogan did not let the AKP, then under Ahmet Davutoglu, form a coalition government after it lost its majority in June 2015 and instead pushed for a snap election in November of the same year. He also forced Davutoglu to resign/abdicate party leadership in favour of an Erdogan loyalist, Binali Yildirim.  Those posing a threat to Erdogan’s control of the party – including founding members – were gradually eliminated (Pitel, 2020). Having changed the constitution and introduced a sui generis presidential system in April 2017, Erdogan “legalized” his connection with the AKP and he resumed his role as party leader. This phenomenon is named the “President with a party system (Partili Cumhurbaşkanlığı sistemi) (Gözler, 2017).

Following the 2017 referendum, Erdogan now has the ability to choose his own officials for the highest offices in the country, ranging from the judiciary to vice chancellors of universities. This foundational change to Turkey’s democratic structure was made possible by the AKP’s populism. The party used the anxiety over “the other” to justify its desire for a more centralized government. The formation of the “President with a party” system was the final step in the AKP’s authoritarian transformation. The AKP can use force entirely at its discretion, as a large portion of the population trusts the party to keep them safe. 

Thus, the AKP has crafted a “New Turkey,”  a country populated by paranoid, insecure, vengeful, and conservative Muslims (Yilmaz, 2021). As opposed to the stigma attached to traditional ways of life under Kemalism, the AKP’s “New Turkey” has created space for the Sunni Muslim citizen to fully embrace his or her religious heritage. That same citizen fully believes that Turkey is ready to avenge its historical loss – the destruction of the Ottoman Empire – and dominate the world once again. All the while, the AKP ensures that any threats to this new utopia are dealt with swiftly and strictly; no one can “mess” with Turkey like they once did.  

Erdogan and his party have emphasized their position as “authentic Turks.” For instance, Erdogan famously said, “In this country there are White Turks, as well as Black Turks. Your Brother Tayyip is from the Black Turks” (Ferguson, 2013). At this point, any dissenting voices are either jailed or driven out of the country, as they are not truly representatives of “the people’s” views and are deemed foreign propaganda (Göknar, 2019)

To religiously legitimize its authoritarian turn, the AKP has relied on fatwas and support from religious institutes to provide it validity. For example, Diyanet’s head, Mehmet Gormez, issued a statement after the 2016 failed coup attempt. It read: “Praise to Allah for granting the calls to prayer that silenced the coup, after the [past] coups that have silenced calls to prayer” (Fabbe & Guiler, 2016). Adding more divine legitimacy to the issue, Erdogan added that the coup attempt was as “a gift from God” that has “fortunately” unmasked the “parallel” structures within the state, thus saving the people, their party, and the leader (Fabbe & Guiler, 2016). 

The AKP is now extending its populism to other countries. It has been busy generating a neo-Ottoman narrative rooted in a blend of civilizationalism and pan-Islamism. Turkey is increasingly involved in Africa and Asia’s Muslim-majority countries. This takes the form of joint military exercises, trade agreements, welfare programs, cultural exchanges, lending diplomatic support, and at times aiding in conflicts. Recent examples include support given by Ankara to Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir territory. Erdogan also boosted Turkey’s role in Libya, saying, “The road to peace in Libya goes through Turkey” (Maziad and Sotiriadis, 2020).

To consolidate support ahead of the next election in 2023, the AKP is floating an expanded neo-Ottoman fantasy – that Turkey has the “right” to demand the return of its lost Ottoman territories in Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, and Iran. According to Erdogan, after 100 years, the Lausanne Treaty will have come to an end; then, Turkey will wield its “real” influence – influence that has been kept in check by Western power and financial lobbies (Elitas & Serpil, 2019)

Increasingly, the AKP and Erdogan have positioned themselves as the rightful heir of the Sunni Muslim world, referencing their Ottoman past and Muslim Democrat image. This posturing hasn’t always taken the form of overt political manoeuvring: the famous AKP-supported TV serial, “Dirilis: Ertugrul,” has taken by storm a number of countries where “New Turkey” looks to deepen its influence. The story narrates the fictional, humble-yet-courageous beginning of the Ottoman Empire at a time when disunited Muslim tribes were victims of the Crusaders and “pagan” Mongols. Thus, according to the story, the Muslim’s plight was answered by Ertugrul, who eventually established the Ottoman Empire (Maziad and Sotiriadis, 2020). This show is spreading Turkey’s neo-Ottoman narrative – that Turkey has the solutions to problems facing the (Sunni) Muslim world.  

The AKP-led “New Turkey” has been built around nepotism, clientelism, authoritarianism, conspiracy theories, populism, and an Islamism closely mirrors the Milli Gorus ideology that, at one point, the party was eager to distance itself from. Yet today, the AKP proudly espouses these values, working them deep into the socio-political fabric of Turkish society (Cornell, at all 2015).

Whatever happens in 2023, it is undeniable that the AKP has transformed Turkey from a Kemalist state to a more right-wing Islamist populist state that seeks to export its ideas and influence on other Muslim majority countries. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

The AKP’s Future  

Turkey’s 2019 local elections showed that the AKP has fallen in popularity – at least in cities, where the CHP remains the main opposition force (Gill, 2020). Although the AKP won a plurality of votes, the CHP won the mayoral elections in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, Turkey’s three biggest cities.  

In the past, the AKP has shown tendency to successfully either engulf parties within the AKP or shut them down. However, it is still unclear what the AKP will do about the CHP as the critical 2023 general elections draw closer. It must not be forgotten that the AKP draws most of its support from rural areas; thus, its defeat in secularized cities cannot be a clear indication of its nationwide defeat. The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the Turkish economy, and the financial situation may only get more precarious as the Turkish lira sinks even lower against the dollar. Erdogan has fired a number of officials that have been used as scapegoats, including his very own son-in-law, the now former finance minister, Berat Albayrak (Gill, 2020).

Whatever happens in 2023, it is undeniable that the AKP has transformed Turkey from a Kemalist state to a more right-wing Islamist populist state that seeks to export its ideas and influence on other Muslim majority countries. 

Conclusion 

The global tide of populism will leave a profound mark on Turkey. The AKP’s success during the past two decades, has hinged on Islamist authoritarian populism and been driven by its long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP and Erdogan are like conjoined twins. During his one interregnum as leader, during his first presidential term, he ruled the party through his proxies and then changed the Constitution to “legalize” his control over the party and the parliament. 

Although the AKP once campaigned as a Muslim Democrat party, it has over the years turned to Islamist authoritarianism and populism to hide its failures and transgressions, exploiting Turkey’s existing anxieties and religions and ethnic divides to survive. It has gradually expanded the definition of “the other,” starting with the Kemalist elite before demonizing civil society, “foreign-sponsored” Gulenists, and non-Turkish groups such as Kurds. All of these “others” have been used as scapegoats, creating an atmosphere of terror that the AKP has used to curb any political opposition. All critical media and educational institutions have been subdued into silence. Almost no critical voices remain in Turkey. Those who might speak out risk being labelled a traitor. By creating a state of constant threat, the AKP can resort to calls for “law and order” – something that only the strongman AKP can deliver. Thus, the party can justify “going tough” on the various “terrorists” who are trying to undermine the nation’s wellbeing, further eliminating any opposition.            

The party uses three gambits to support itself. First, successive changes to state institutions have led to displacement of the former Kemalist regime and strong institutional checks and balances. Second, the presidential system increasingly allows the AKP to legitimately practice its authoritarian actions and policies. It uses the same power to crush any political, civil, or media opposition. At the same time, it has used educational institutes and the Diyanet to spread its narrative, producing a generation of AKP loyalists who are susceptible to the anxieties that the party has used to amass power and secure its future. Lastly, the AKP has been able to use its position in power to create a new bourgeoisie, one whose business deals are facilitated by public officials; in return, a patronage-based relationship is established, to ensure the AKP has powerful friends and allies in the private sector. 

“New Turkey” is now a reality. After twenty years of AKP rule, the party has been successful at dismantling the Kemalist ideals – ironically, perhaps, by using similarly repressing techniques, such as cracking down on civil liberties and democratic rights. Yet the AKP’s ideology is a dangerous entanglement of religion and nostalgic pride in Ottoman culture, giving it unparalleled legitimacy in the eyes of its Turkish supporters and also in the eyes of Muslims around the world, where the AKP seeks to export its specific variant of populism.  

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[1] https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/news/542/32504/cumhurbaskani-Erdoğan-adanada

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) used to be an activist party at a time when civil society was highly subdued under a military regime. Through modest civil disobedience, it has graduated to the status of a formidable opposition party. It has used populist rhetoric and tactics to delegitimize and “otherize” the conventional parties and position itself as the ideal voice and hope for “the people.” It has used a wide array of ideologies to support its populism, which tapped into deep-rooted anxieties in the public’s psyche.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Since its inception, Pakistan has faced several crises of governance. As a young state, it lost its founding father in 1948, hardly a year after its birth, leaving the country in the hands of relatively inexperienced politicians who mainly came from the landed elite. Poverty, ethno-linguistic rifts, civil war, a lack of economic output, and refugee crises – along with internal and external security issues – all challenged the country, which oscillated between military dictatorships and brief periods of populist democratic-turned-autocratic governments.

The late 1980s and 1990s brought a window of opportunity for political parties; however, during government instability coupled with corruption and resource mismanagement led to the general public seeing their needs unmet. Through consecutive failed democratic governments led by the two main parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), corruption, rampart poverty, insecurity, and growing external debt were core issues. Amidst this backdrop of crumbling institutional capacity emerged a small party called the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).[1]

PTI was founded by the iconic Pakistani sportsman, Imran Khan, in 1996. Khan was a national hero: under his captaincy, Pakistan’s national cricket team has won its first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992, after a hotly contested match against England. He was a well-respected public figure who had spent a considerable amount of time in philanthropy, establishing the first cancer hospital in Pakistan. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre was established in Lahore on 29 December 1994. In 1985, Khan’s mother had scumbled to cancer, inspiring him to build a hospital for the poor who had no access to cancer treatment. There are now branches of the hospital in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi (the latter under construction), and they provide world-class free healthcare to oncology patients who could otherwise not afford the treatments. 

Khan’s charitable work also led him to establish the not-for-profit tertiary educational institute, Namal. Khan had spread his campaigns across every section of society, making him a beloved figure. His fundraisers were high profile – Princess Diana was even present at one – while at the grassroots level, children called the “Tigers” collected funds for his causes. Thus, when Imran Khan launched PTI in 1996, he was seen as an honest and dedicated figure, despite speculation about his ability to survive the Pakistani political arena. He had no history of corruption and, most importantly, was a man who felt dard (pain) for the common people. 

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf are holding protest demonstration against detention of social media activists by law enforcers on May 22, 2017 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

From an Infant Party to Activist Party 

PTI in its early years struggled to gain a mass following. With no experience in politics, surviving in a country like Pakistan was difficult. Most mainstream parties have dynastic, feudalistic, and baradari (caste-based) voter banks and roots. In the first elections that it contested, in 1997, the party was unable to win a single seat in the national or provincial assemblies. In this period, it didn’t accept offers by PML-N to join their party, as PTI believed the status quo to be corrupt. 

Throughout the latter part of the 1990s, PTI’s membership was restricted to a group of reformist elite who were seeking to address Pakistan’s core issues, such as poverty, health inequality, out-of-school children, and other human development issues. A group of Western-educated members under the leadership of Khan, himself an Oxford graduate, sought to bring change to the people

Following the Kargil disaster, where Pakistan was defeated by India in the disputed territory of Kashmir, a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government. In 2001, Musharraf instituted the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, installing himself as President and calling for fresh elections in 2002. Post 9/11, PTI remained a one-man party, and it supported Musharraf’s reformist agenda of eradicating terrorism and other core issues. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League Quaid (PML-Q) won the most votes in 2002, and PTI, in its second election, won one seat in the National Assembly, from Mianwali Khan’s hometown; it formed a coalition with minority parties jointly called the National Alliance (NA). 

PTI refused invitations from Musharraf to join the ruling coalition, remaining true to NA coalition, one that included prominent figures such as the former President Farooq Ahmad Lagari and religious cleric turned politician Tahir-ul-Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT). Winning a seat in the National Assembly gave PTI a platform to voice its agenda. The head of the party made proactive use of Pakistan’s newly privatized media landscape. During the Musharraf regime, censorship was a huge issue, yet the media market was also highly liberalized; as a result, several private news channels emerged (Hasan, 2017).

It was during primetime talk shows that PTI gained a market for its populist ideals. Imran Khan became a fixture on media shows and spread, in the early days, an “activist” populism. By this point, Khan opposed the authoritarian Musharraf Presidency and his supposed “US backing.” For the second time in two decades, America had involved Pakistan in its affairs with Afghanistan. The “war on terror” led to a number of Taliban crossing the porous Pakistan-Afghan border and to seek refuge in the tribal Western regions of the country. The “Talibanization” of these remote areas led the US to attack many hotspots in Pakistan via drone strikes – strikes that killed a large number of innocent civilians as well as militants. 

Pakistan was caught in the crosshairs. On the one hand, US drone strikes; on the other, the Taliban frequently targeted schools, public offices, places of worship, and markets. These attacks killed thousands of Pakistani civilians. This gave PTI the perfect opportunity to adapt itself to the new political realities and use populist anti-US sentiment to gain a foothold in the political debates on primetime shows and in other news media.

This was a shift. In the 1990s, its concerns were more humanitarian; now, it addressed divisive issues that were highly charged, such as the US’s involvement in Pakistan, the drone strikes in tribal areas, the future of democracy in the country, and the worsening security situation for the average Pakistani. PTI spent this time carrying out modest rallies and protests as well. For instance, Imran Khan staged a hunger strike in 2007 when Musharraf unconstitutionally dismissed the country’s Chief Justice (Walsh, 2007). PTI went on national TV and talked about the taboo topic of “missing persons,” such as Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and those “disappeared” in Balochistan (Mir, 2018). Touching the “forbidden” issues gave PTI the image of a party that was brave and not afraid of the military government or the US. The anti-US rhetoric was hugely popular, growing PTI’s popularity in a society where anti-West feelings run deep.

During this period, Imran Khan publicly called out Musharraf, exclaiming at one public protest, “your General Musharraf will not survive nor shall the money you looted be safe”. It was during this period that PTI aired its concerns over “foreign” involvement in the country; Khan, the only elected member from his party, was very vocal about America and the colonial attitudes of Western powers. In an interview, he aired his views by saying: “Across the spectrum, from the right to the left, [Pakistanis] want Musharraf to go …. The U.S. administration must be getting this information. In Pakistan, according to all the polls, [U.S. officials] are backing someone who is deeply unpopular in the country” (Inskeep, 2008). For his outspoken stance and part in the Lawyers Movement, the PTI leader was jailed in 2007. 

PTI was an activist party at a time when civil society groups were curbed. It gained public notoriety through its populist anti-West and pro-democracy rhetoric, holding itself in opposition to Pakistan’s fourth military dictatorship and the second American-led Afghan war (Montagne & Reeves, 2007).

Rise to Opposition 

In 2008, PTI took its activism against the regime very seriously. Unlike the mainstream political parties such as the Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) and PML-N, it was not an established part of the political landscape. As such, it decided to not partake in the 2008 general elections, once again positioning itself as the “outsider” who refused to play by the “dirty” and “corrupt” rules. The party firmly believed that the Musharraf regime was still in control and would skew the election results. In an interview Khan said: “Sooner or later, we will have to have free and fair elections…… Any government coming out of these fraudulent elections is not going to last long” (Inskeep, 2008).

As Khan was out of parliament between 2008-2013, his party now focused on using media and mass campaigns to position itself as an “external” opposition. The PPP-led Zardari government saw a rise in inflation, corruption, and external debt, and by 2013, the people were tired of the PPP government and the passive opposition of the PML-N. The presence of PTI as a party with a “non-corrupt” leader greatly appealed to the people; during this period, PTI increased its presence on social media and attended many marches and gatherings called jalsas before the 2013 elections. PTI was becoming an immensely popular personality party, a fact that was evident in October 2011, when masses of people flooded the PTI jalsa in Lahore’s Minto Park (Dawn, 2011).

These gatherings were new in the sense that they featured women, children and young people in unprecedented numbers. The jalsas featured musical concerts by famous singers/bands such as Ibrar ul Haque, Shehzad Roy, the Strings band, and Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi. They also featured fiery speeches opposing the corrupt Zaradari oligarchy delivered by Chairman Khan. Khan used his crude and witty remarks to speak the mind of “the people.” These gatherings were a sharp contrast to other political rallies, which rarely used music in the way PTI did and were not “family friendly”; few political rallies allowed women, children, and youth to participate (Mullah, 2017).

PTI’s support increased as it increasingly positioned itself as the party for insaf (justice); thus, the supporters were commonly referred to as insafians (justice-seekers) and at times as youthias (the youth), given its immense popularity amongst younger Pakistanis.

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf and PTI members of Provincial Assembly are holding anti corruption rally passing through the road, on May 06, 2016 in Peshawar. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

PTI’s support increased as it increasingly positioned itself as the party for insaf (justice); thus, the supporters were commonly referred to as insafians (justice-seekers) and at times as youthias (the youth), given its immense popularity amongst younger Pakistanis. In a society where police and the courts, the pinnacles of justice, take bribes to do their jobs, the call for “justice” was a chord that struck deep. This was especially true for youth who’d grown up hearing about corruption, terrorism, inflation, and unemployment. In the early 2010s, urban areas and in particular the middle class gravitated towards PTI’s anti-status quo stance, attracted by its lack of corruption and the fact it was a new party, free of the usual hereditary politics. And unlike the PPP and PML-N, PTI didn’t have a history of broken electoral promises (Warraich, 2018).

In 2012, in response to continued drone killings, PTI took the courageous decision to launch a motorcade “march” in the drone-impacted areas on Pakistan’s western frontier. Its presence in South Waziristan brought the party great acclaim at home, as no other party had dared to venture into the troubled region, again assuring its supporters that PTI was unlike others and possessed the courage to make the right decisions (BBC, 2012). The party and its chairman became the voice of dissent on the issue of the Taliban. While terrorism claimed lives in Pakistan on an almost daily basis, PTI argued that military intervention was not the solution. This solidified its support amongst the predominantly foreign-educated and upper middle-class elites (Mullah, 2017).

At the same time, PTI voiced its sympathy for the Taliban, who they believed had been “used” by the US during the Soviet era and were now being hunted.  Khan believed there were “good” and “bad” Taliban, a common conservative position at the time (Mullah, 2017). The party talked of mediation, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation. Thus, PTI was seen as a rational and pro-peace building party that believed in reforming and integrating the “good” Taliban back into society (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017; Dawn, 2011). Again, PTI had struck a populist chord and appeased two polar opposite sides of society.

The anti-US rhetoric and a narrative of change, anti-corruption, and peace, coupled with the jalsas and the chairman’s past charity, all buoyed PTI before the 2013 general elections. The hopes for a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) throughtabdeli (change) embedded in justice led to a boost in support for PTI. This tsunami would bring change to society. For over 60 years, the country had seen the deterioration a promise of change and worsening social and economic conditions. The media and social media coverage helped position PTI as the “outsider” led by the kaptan (captain). The charisma of the kaptan was the core of PTI. 

Pakistan-PTI

Ascent to Power and ‘Container’ Politics 

Until 2011, PTI opposed aligning itself with “politically electable” candidates, but as the 2013 elections neared, a number of prominent figures such as Shah Mehmood Qureshi (current Foreign Minister) from the PPP and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi and his brother from the PML-N joined the party (Rao, 2018). A small number of ex-PML-Q members also joined the party, such as sugar tycoon Jahangir Tareen. In addition, many notable elites joined the party. These included s Dr Arif Alvi (the current President) and Dr Shireen Mazari (the current Federal Minister for Human Rights) (Dawn, 2011). PTI gradually gained momentum by not only amassing a cult of insafians but also key political players. It made a comprise which it justified as means to an end. That end? Secure power to usher in meaningful change for the people

In its third general elections, PTI fared well. It was not able to secure a majority of the votes nationally, but it won a majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) by securing 19 percent of the votes and winning 48 seats (Election Commission of Pakistan, 2013). PTI formed its first coalition government with the far-right Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), left-leaning Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), and a host of independent candidates. This odd coalition (when PTI already had a comfortable majority) was led by Pervez Khattak, a reformist ex-PPP supporter. 

PTI also secured seats in Punjab, where it positioned itself as the opposition. 

In KPK, a war-torn region severally impacted by the war on terror, PTI launched a number of reformist programs that focused on technocratic solutions pertaining to good governance, e-governance, public-private partnerships, accountability, and anti-corruption. It established several commissions to promote businesses, provided infrastructure for commerce in the region, and make it smoother to deal with street-level bureaucracy (Daudzai, 2018).

These policies and measures failed to alleviate the widespread problems, especially as PTI failed to implement the 18thConstitutional Amendment, which gave provinces the autonomy to establish local governments that support the implementation of policies (Daudzai, 2018). To appease its partner JI, school curriculums were “Islam-ized” and Quran classes became compulsory – this despite PTI campaigning on de-radicalizing youth (Abbasi, 2017; Dawn, 2014). During its first term, PTI acted as a populist party in two ways. It compromised by Islamizing school curriculum, appeasing its right-wing partner, and it was unable to effectively translate its populist ideals into realities that benefited the people.

Inayatullah Khan, the local Governance Minister, pointed out, “There are errors in current textbooks which go against our values.” He explained, “We live in an Islamic society, women don’t wear skirts here.” The Minister further showed his contempt for the previous government, which removed the religious chapter and replaced it with “chapters on Nelson Mandela, Karl Marx, Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama and Neil Armstrong” (Dawn, 2014).

Unable to live up to its promises, the party frequently hid its failures behind increasingly dense and intensifying populist rhetoric focusing on vindictive character assassinations of political opponents, specifically through the use of crude and foul language.

PTI frequently shied away from the realities on the ground and blamed the federal government (under control of the PML-N) for not providing funds to fully achieve its goals. For instance, a senior PTI party member conceded that the party had failed to bring about transparency and accountability in the province but asserted that, “The nation must strengthen the hands of Imran Khan since he was the only politician who can steer the country out of the prevailing crisis”(Sadaqat, 2017).

Unable to live up to its promises, the party frequently hid its failures behind increasingly dense and intensifying populist rhetoric focusing on vindictive character assassinations of political opponents, specifically through the use of crude and foul language. It also petitioned the courts, alleging “rigged” election results. In its quest to drag down Nawaz Sharif, PTI framed him as the “enemy” of the people, not merely a political rival. The call for Naya Pakistan was contrasted to the corrupt and dismal current Pakistan. 

Together, these steps were enough to distract people from the party’s own poor performance. The jalsas from the pre-election days gave PTI the street power to galvanize supporters. Post-2013, the mass turned into dharna (container) politics, in which Imran Khan roused huge mobs while he sat inside a shipping container, only to emerge to deliver his fiery speeches – thus earning the name “container politics” (BBC, 2014).

The speeches talked about bringing dignity to the wronged people by kicking out the “corrupt” and making the country “great” for the ordinary masses. PTI was certainly not the first or last to use this style of container politics; however, its populist message was so well received that it staged one of the longest dharnas in the country’s modern history (Khan, 2019).

Soon after the 2013 election results, PTI launched a court case against the ruling PML-N government, accusing them of vote-rigging (Lashari & Mirza, 2013). PTI’s populist drive for “justice” was buoyed by young people and the party’s social media “army,” which took the internet by storm, demanding change and spreading the party’s populist narrative (Jahangir, 2020). 

In 2014, PTI collaborated with right-wing religious scholar Tahir ul Qadri and his PAT; together, they launched mass civil disobedience campaigns that started on 14 August 2014 and were called off on 17 December of the same year (Express Tribune, 2014). In 2013, Qadri and his disciples had blocked the main intersection in Islamabad, protesting against the “corrupt government.” This came to be known as the “Long March” (2013). Qadri had amassed support on the promise that, “tomorrow, the injustices will end, and these corrupt people will no longer run the government” (Rodriguez, 2013).

After the protests and elections in June 2014, several of Qadri’s disciples from his religious NGO Minhaj-ul-Quran were killed in Model Town, Lahore, by Punjab Police. The killings led PAT to join PTI’s Azadi March (Freedom March) or the Tsunami March with new zeal as they sought to avenge the blood of the “martyrs of the Model Town Massacre” (Imran, 2014). PTI strategically used a national tragedy to join forces with the religious right-wing populist party in an effort to pressure the government into resigning and calling new elections. It was deeply cynical, but PTI convinced its supporters that this was a necessary part of ridding Pakistan of “the corrupt politicians” (Mullah, 2017).

For 126 days, PTI and its partner organized marches across Pakistan and sit-ins, mainly in Islamabad and other key cities. They demanded tribunals to investigate alleged election fraud. These protests were given 24/7 live coverage on numerous media channels; primetime “analytical gurus” buzzed about the future of Pakistani politics and the rise of a highly popular Khan. PTI was now a serious political contender. PTI trended across all media platforms. The party’s anti-corruption call, and their insistence that foreign involvement end, became household discussions around the country. 

PTI was the perfect messenger. It was a relatively new party, with no substantial corruption allegations against it and a charismatic leader who communicated with the masses in plain and frank language about their core issues and gave them hope for a better, fairer society – a utopian, Naya Pakistan (Mullah, 2017)

By the end of the protests, PTI was increasingly seen as a “silver bullet” for the country’s problems: its anti-corruption message was the answer to it all. It was simple logic, according to the PTI: Pakistan was a poor country with no money because the corrupt had looted it; thus, once the corrupt elite – including the politicians – were brought to justice, the money would return, and the country would be prosperous (Mullah, 2017).

This “common-sense” populist logic helped the party connect to people all rungs of society. “Go Nawaz Go” became a national slogan, which PTI supporters chanted at rallies and hash-tagged across social media (Dawn, 2014).

PTI dominated the politics of the period, despite being in the opposition. It also triggered a second court case against PML-N and its core members such as Nawaz Sharif and his family – this time, for an alleged money laundering scheme. PTI vowed to bring justice by prosecuting the corrupt Nawaz oligarchy. This movement gained credibility after Nawaz family members were linked to the leak of the Panama Papers (Cheema, 2017). During the year-long trial, PTI was again all over the media in an effort to gather public support and call out the sitting government. They also organized a series of sit-in, dharnas, and protests in front of key government buildings, as well as the Sharif’s residence itself in Riwind, Lahore (Cheema, 2017; Specia, 2017)

PTI’s was increasingly exerting pressure on state intuitions, such as the judiciary, to follow their directives, a highly undemocratic use of public protests. When PTI was called out for using its protests to pressure the judiciary, Khan lashed out, saying, “Is seeking justice from the courts the equivalent of pressure?” He went on to say, “They (PML-N) are the ones pressuring us!” He also warned Nawaz Sharif, “Hear me loud and clear, Nawaz Sharif: whatever you are doing here, now you shall see that the Pakistani nation will no longer silently tolerate all this!” (Cheema, 2017). Any state institution or media group that sided with the Sharifs was deemed corrupt or serving the oligarchy. In extreme cases they were “the other,” who were working against the interests of the people for selfish motives – or even carrying out foreign objectives. 

PTI increasingly positioned any opposition from the government to curb it or counter it as “schemes” by the ruling parties to deny justice to the people. Thus, any attack directed at PTI was an attack on “the people,” a populist manoeuvre to gain immunity from criticism by being one with the people

PTI Chairman Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

At the concurrent PTI gatherings, the same rhetoric was used to reassure the people that they were a “great nation,” and only the corrupt, status quo politicians stood in the way of achieving their destiny. Imran Khan and other PTI members repeatedly called the Nawaz brothers by various nicknames, including “blood sucking cowards,” Gidd-Sharif (vultures), Mian-Panama Sharif (mocking Nawaz for his involvement in the Panama leaks), circus-Sharifs, Drama-Sharif, and Show-baz Sharif (an actor). Following the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif, PTI celebrated with a “thanksgiving” gathering. Within 24 hours of the ruling, thousands rallied to Islamabad to attend the event. This was portrayed as a victory of the people – not the party. PTI increasingly positioned any opposition from the government to curb it or counter it as “schemes” by the ruling parties to deny justice to the people. Thus, any attack directed at PTI was an attack on “the people,” a populist manoeuvre to gain immunity from criticism by being one with the people

Imran Khan increasingly focused on the narrative of an azad qoum – a nation free from the tyranny of the oppressive political elite and the Western agendas that had led to Pakistan’s external debt. 

Between 2013-2018, PTI came into direct confrontation with police, in particular the Punjab police, during its mass protests. The party argued that the policemen were their “brothers” or countrymen who were being used by the sitting government to create “division within the country,” serving the self-interests of the political elite. 

The sitting government was repeatedly warned that they would be held accountable for the sins they had commented against the people, and that once those who were “robbing the country in the name of democracy” were thrown behind bars and the Swiss bank accounts emptied, then, “god willing, this great country and a great nation” would have justice achieve its “true” greatness. PTI’s populist rhetoric meant that, as the voice of the people, it was always pure in its actions and intentions. The same rhetoric deflected all blame to the “status quo.”

PTI’s agenda for the 2018 elections centred around a welfare state modelled on the first Islamic state of Madinah (Riyasat-e-Madina). It would be dedicated to serving the people, and this would be made possible by PTI ensuring that “the 5 to 10 thousand people that are sucking the blood of this country” would be weeded out and the money returned to the people. The party’s simple, populist logic for highly complex problems was accepted by the public in a country where belief in miracles is common and education is a rare commodity. 

By the end of PML-N’s term, the party had lost its main leadership, as various members of the Sharif family and fraternity were under investigation in a multitude of money laundering and tax-evasion cases, a great win for the PTI which had legitimized itself by leading the charge for these investigations. 

PTI was able to muster support that went beyond religious-cultural divides. Its promise of a welfare state based on Medina’s were accepted by liberals, moderates, and conservatives who saw this vague promise through the lens of their own interpretations. The calls of the anti-establishment parties had resonated with all sectors of the populace.

With PML-N and PPP leadership engulfed in corruption scandals, the PTI had an opportunity. Unlike other opposition parties – for example, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) that relied on ethnicity alone religious parties like JI – PTI was able to muster support that went beyond religious-cultural divides. Its promise of a welfare state based on Medina’s were accepted by liberals, moderates, and conservatives who saw this vague promise through the lens of their own interpretations. The calls of the anti-establishment parties had resonated with all sectors of the populace (Ahmed, 2018; Judah 2018). Its smear campaign to delegitimize the “corrupt” political parties left PTI as the only legitimate choice. 

PTI’s victory was secured when it welcomed several defectors from the PPP and PML-N along with former PML-Q members. It had promised various incentives to these factions, securing their loyalty – for example, the South Punjab parties were promised a separate province,[2] and after the election many key posts from Punjab and the Federal Government were handed to these factions (Adnan, 2018). PTI was politically shrewd and welcomed the likes of Shaikh Rahseed, who was a former political rival known for mocking PTI and Imran Khan. PTI welcomed and later gave ministries to the likes of Fawad Chaudhry, who previously worked with the Musharraf regime and PPP governments. In defence of the party’s sudden open-arms policy, Khan argued: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians”(Rehman 2018). Given Khan’s clean history, disillusionment with the current political parties and PTI’s simple promises to complex solutions, supporters dismissed this cynical manoeuvring as a necessary evil.

Breaking Promises — The Ass in Lion’s Skin

In the 2018 general elections, PTI won the most votes, securing 31% of the popular vote and  winning 149 seats in the national assembly (Election Commission of Pakistan, 2018). 

PTI’s leaders had pledged to its supporters that if elected to office, they would end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days. A key feature of both promises hinged on bringing “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The Express Tribune, 2018; The News, 2018). The party had an overly ambitious 100-day agenda which outlined all the problems in the country and PTI’s promises to solve them (Dawn, 2018). However, all that glitters is not gold: PTI struggled to meet its pledges. 

On the economic front, PTI has failed to live up to its ambitions for employment, small business-led growth, and support for export driven sectors; even before the pandemic, Pakistan’s debt and liabilities surged by Rs11 trillion (more than $70 billion) within one year. During the same period, the Pakistan Stock Exchange, the KSE-100 index, saw a sharp slump coupled with one of the worst devaluations of the Pakistan Rupee against the US Dollar. Matters were made worse by the inflation rate at 7 percent, unemployment at 9 percent – it was worse among youth – and the rising prices of petrol and utilities (Eusufzye, 2018; Jamal, 2018). Thus, like any other populist party once in power, PTI found it hard to achieve its promises through its “simple” populist solutions.

Apart from the economic disaster, PTI also failed to live up to its most basic promises. None of the socialist programs inspired by Islamism panned out. The Naya Pakistan Housing, youth programs, SMEs Loans, Ehsan welfare programs, the Sehat Insaf Cards, even Tree Tsunami … all are under investigation for corruption charges (Qayyum, 2020; Khan, 2020; Mehmood, 2019). In the past, the party had said it would not “take the begging bowl” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in search of a bailout, yet after a year of delaying, PTI eventually opted for an IMF package (Farmer, 2020). When faced with the realities of a large population and nearly empty state coffers, the party has had to backtrack. Populist rhetoric is difficult to translate into actual socio-economic change. 

The party had to rely on the US, China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries at various points for loans, a practise which PTI had previously condemned. Since assuming office, the government has not been able to solve the Kashmir dispute with India, despite their promises for a “quick fix” to the prolonged regional conflict. In fact, matters have only been made worse post-August 2019, when India scrapped the region’s autonomous status by dismissing Article 370 and 35A. In the international arena, Pakistan has found no ally other than China and Turkey to support its claims about the disputed territory (Janjua, 2020). To mask its diplomatic embarrassment, PTI leadership in the foreigner ministry has repeatedly externalized blame to the Indian and Israeli “lobbies” working to destabilize Pakistan. 

On its accountability and institutional reformist agendas, the party has also failed to meet its promises. PTI sought an end to “VIP culture,”[4] yet as the party eased into power, its ministers frequently and lavishly went on foreign tours and maintained full escorts and private facilities (Pakistan Today, 2018). In addition, PTI has failed its liberal supporters, too. Dr. Atif Mian was dismissed from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC)[5] based on his religious identification with the Ahmadi school, a blow to minority rights (Dawn, 2020).

Moreover, while the PTI government flaunts its peace initiative of welcoming Sikh pilgrims to sacred landmarks such as Kartarpur, the country sees regular forced conversions, abductions, target killing, and murders of Shia Muslims and non-Muslims. PTI remains silent on most of these issues. A number of PTI members are former JI members or from JI’s student wing; thus, it did not come as a surprise when Ali Muhammad Khan, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, claimed on Twitter that beheading is the fit punishment for those who mock Prophet Mohammad (Inayat, 2020). PTI had specifically distinguished itself as having a higher moral ground on humanitarian issues, yet it has failed to deliver here, too, as it has either maintained silence on such issues or deflected the blame to India for sponsoring “terrorism” – using another layer of populism to cover its failed populist agenda.

Over the past two-and-a-half years PTI has taken an apologist approach, conceding that not all of its ministers have performed and that governing is “complex.” However, Khan has said, “The people have to decide whether we have improved their lives or not.” The fault now lies with “the others” – including people those who refused to pay taxes – and not the government. (While in the opposition, PTI blamed the previous governments for not collecting the revenue.) 

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are holding protest demonstration against rape and murder of minor Rabia, on April 22, 2018 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

PTI rose to power on the back of an unregulated media, but is now heavily reliant on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor any content it deems unfit, may it be biscuit advertisements that are “not in line with cultural values” to banning the speeches of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on charges of sedition.

In a recent interview, Khan was asked why Pakistan has a high rate of child and sexual abuse, rather than talking about the need for the government to start dialogues around sex education and abuse, he blamed the “Western porn sites” and “influences” as the cause of the horrific crimes, again shunning responsibility, shifting the blame and making use of the popular anti-West sentiments (Hum News, 2020). 

Amidst COVID-19, the government initially did little more than tell people, “Aap ne ghabrana nahi hai” (you must not panic), while the responsibility for the ravaging pandemic was blamed on the provinces, if PTI was not the majority party, or chalked up to the public’s non-cooperation (John, 2020; Dawn, 2020). When populists fail to deliver, they deflect blame and portray themselves as victims. 

PTI has also directly targeted the opposition. To ensure its survival, the party is not shy about undermining the institutional integrity of other state pillars, proof of its populist, as opposed to democratic, values. From its inception, PTI has given support to the army, and this was visible when the judiciary was targeted by PTI members after the courts handed out a death sentence to President General Pervez Musharraf. In contrast to their pervious stance on Musharraf in the 2000s, after assuming power, PTI supports the institution. Fawad Chaudhry, a Federal Minister said: “You pushed the institution [army] against the wall. It is an honour-based institution. If you keep doing this, won’t they react?” He also directly threatened the judiciary (Qayum & Haider, 2019; Gulf News, 2019).

PTI has dragged Justice Isa Qazi and his wife to court after the judge made an anti-establishment comment (Global Village Space, 2019). Imran Khan has challenged the writ of the court by objecting to the Supreme Court blocking the extension of the current army chief (Farmer, 2019). The PM stated, “The people’s confidence in country’s judicial system has been shaken and now they are looking towards the PTI government for improvement in the system” (Dawn, 2020). PTI has used pressure and mudslinging when the judiciary has not sided with them or helped them with “pro-public” decisions to maintain its grasp on power. 

PTI rose to power on the back of an unregulated media, but is now heavily reliant on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor any content it deems unfit, may it be biscuit advertisements that are “not in line with cultural values” to banning the speeches of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on charges of sedition. The government has also targeted the head of Jang Group, Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, who was arrested on corruption charges in March 2020; journalists within the group had dared to publish content critical of the government. Rehman’s defenders have also faced backlash. 

The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) is another tool PTI’s used to control all forms of media, along with the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules of 2020, which aims to regulate social media (Mahbubani, 2020). The ambiguous language of the bill allows for it to ban content on charges of “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violent and national security” (Rehman, 2020).

Moreover, civil society’s dissenting voices have been squashed. Several humanitarian NGOs and INGOs have been sent packing for their “anti-state” agendas (Sayeed, 2018). While PTI once showed its support to the plight of the Pashtun victims of the “war on terror,” it is currently targeting members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) – a civil society movement that seeks peaceful conflict resolutions in the aftermath of several military operations in the region (The News, 2019).

Conclusion

PTI has evolved through three stages of development. It was an activist party at a time when civil society was highly subdued under a military regime. Through modest civil disobedience, it graduated to the status of a formidable opposition party. It used populist rhetoric and tactics to delegitimize and “otherize” the conventional parties and position itself as the ideal voice and hope for “the people.” It used a wide array of ideologies to support its populism, which tapped into deep-rooted anxieties in the public’s psyche.

In a country where politicians are conventionally corrupt, relations with neighbouring countries are strained, social welfare is absent, Islamism is rampant, and economic decline is a constant, PTI has successfully positioned itself as the voice of the people. It promised to drive out the corrupt elite and alleged “foreign” interventions and influences. It invited people with open arms to lively rallies where the leader spoke the language of the people, voicing their concerns and worries and presenting simplistic solutions they understood. It clearly identified the enemy and positioned itself as the solution to all problems. PTI has used religion, anti-West sentiments, its outsider status, support for welfare, and a host of social issues to craft a populist narrative that appealed to the people.

Its third evolution – becoming the government – has been a turbulent process. PTI has broken several of its promises. To deflect blame, it has used oppressive tactics, blanketing and muffling the media, charactering COVID-19 as the cause of its failures, and externalizing blame. It has blamed Western and foreign influences and called opposition parties anti-state and anti-democratic. 

Freudian displacement, projection, and rationalization have become the hallmarks of PTI’s first tenure in office. Its populist rhetoric has only intensified as the party increasingly hounds the opposition as “seditious.” Increasingly, PTI gravitates towards homegrown Islamism and pan-Islamism, all in the bid to consolidate its power while trying to appease the masses it has long placated with its populist rhetoric – a public hungry for help after prolonged socio-economic deprivation.              

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Footnotes 

[1] The party name translates to Pakistan Justice Movement 

[2] For some time now South Punjabis have demanded a separate province based on ethno-lingual distinctions and a history of low development, which they have felt is hijacked by politics form Eastern or Central Punjab. 

[3] Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme promised subsidized housing to the working and lower middle classes to address the housing shortage. SMEs and Youth Loans have been initiated to promote small businesses and to offer job placements or internships to fresh graduates. The Tree Tsunami is an afforestation campaign. Insaf Sehat Cards and Ehsa welfare programs are aimed to provide social protections such as healthcare and cash handouts. 

[4] Where special treatment is given to elected officials or members of the government out of public funding 

[5] A Prime Minister led group of handpicked leading Pakistani economists.

The Proud Boys participated in Million Maga March in Washington DC on December 12, 2020.

The Proud Boys: Chauvinist poster child of far-right extremism

The Proud Boys is a far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group who have been known to use violence against left-wing opponents. The group describes themselves as “Western chauvinists,” by which they mean “men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world”. The group, which is the new face of far-right extremism, one that recruits through shared precarity and male grievances promotes and engages in political violence.

By Bulent Kenes

During his presidential term, Donald Trump showed more sympathy for far right and extremist groups than any US president in recent memory. Prior to his term, white supremacists, white nationalists, and other far-right extremist groups operated mainly on the political margins and could expect condemnation from most mainstream politicians. However, Trump’s rhetoric has lent legitimacy to their agendas. His administration also pressured law enforcement agencies to downplay the threat posed by these extremist groups. Thus, it created a permissive atmosphere for such groups to operate in (Matanock & Staniland, 2020), and extremists have been increasingly emboldened (Crowell & O’Regan, 2019).

On January 6, 2021, a ragtag band of Trump’s extremist supporters shocked the world when they stormed the US Capitol Building, leaving a trail of destruction and violence in their wake. When all was said and done, five people, including a police officer, were dead. Though the invaders were made up of a bizarre patchwork of far-right groups, conspiracy theorists, and lone wolves, a significant proportion of those pictured at the scene affiliated themselves with the Proud Boys. In recent months the group has become synonymous with violent opposition to the Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements (Greig, 2021). It raises the question: who are the Proud Boys? 

The Proud Boys are a far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group who have been known to use violence against left-wing opponents (Greig, 2021). The group describes themselves as “Western chauvinists,” by which they mean “men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world” (McBain, 2020). According to Kutner, the Proud Boys are the new face of far-right extremism, one that recruits through shared precarity and male grievances (Kutner, 2020). Meanwhile, others define it as a neo-fascist and white supremacist organization that promotes and engages in political violence in a number of countries, including the US, Canada (MacFarquhar et.al., 2020), Australia (Culkin, 2017), several European countries, and even Israel (Israel Faxx, 2020). Vitolo-Haddad (2019) is right to define the Proud Boys as “a multinational fraternal organization” that uses an aesthetic of libertarianism to advance a fascist politic. 

The Proud Boys is a strange amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group – one that loves Trump and hates Muslims, Jews, and trans people but permits non-white membership.

Gavin McInnes

The Proud Boys was founded by noted racist, anti-Semite, and Islamophobe Gavin McInnes, Vice Media’s co-founder and former commentator, a “provocateur” who has described himself as “an old punk from Canada.” McInnes turned to the political right in 2008 and introduced the Proud Boys to the larger public (McInnes, 2016) on September 15, 2016. According to Coaston (2018), the group is a strange amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group – one that loves Trump and hates Muslims, Jews, and trans people but permits non-white membership. The group took its name from the song “Proud of Your Boy” from the Disney musical Aladdin.

While the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes the group as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration” (McBain, 2020), the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) designated the Proud Boys as hate group who “regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists (Mom Demand Action, 2020). “What really defines the Proud Boys is their activity on the ground, so their proclivity to violence and their consistent presence as a counter-movement to left-wing protests,” said Jacob Davey, a senior researcher focusing on the far-right. Joseph Lowndes, a political science professor, described them as an “authoritarian group focused on the glorification of male violence,” more an “overblown street gang” than a well-organised militia (McBain, 2020). 

The Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they made national headlines in August 2017. The rally was advertised as a protest about the removal of confederate statues (Stolberg & Rosenthal, 2017). Later, it was proven to be a pretext for a violent show of force (Sankin & Pham, 2017). After one woman was killed and 19 others were seriously injured in a vehicular attack, McInnes “disavowed” Proud Boys who attended (Barnes, 2017)

The next year, in 2018, the group was temporarily classified as an extremist organization by the FBI (Kutner, 2020) after the group was involved in a violent clash with anarchists on the streets of Manhattan, following an event in which McInnes portrayed Otoya Yamaguchi, a young far-right extremist who assassinated the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party (Coaston, 2018). Because of this clash, McInnes stepped down from his role as the Proud Boys’ leader, stating he would no longer be involved with the group in any capacity (Wilson, 2018). In a video, McInnes said, “I am officially disassociating myself from the Proud Boys. In all capacities, forever, I quit.” He added, “I’m told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” referring to the Proud Boys who were facing legal problems (Coaston, 2018). Since early 2019, Enrique Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban American who briefly ran for Congress, has been the chairman of the Proud Boys (Sidner, 2020).

Enrique Tarrio.

According to the group, there are four levels of Proud Boy membership. The first is to declare yourself to be a Proud Boy. “This means you make your Western chauvinism public and you don’t care who knows it” through declaring that “I am a western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” (SPLC, 2021). The second level is the swearing-off of masturbation known online as “nofap” or #NoWanks combined with a “cereal beat-in” – if you want into the group, you have to get beaten up while successfully reciting the names of five breakfast cereals, because “defending the West against the people who want to shut it down is like remembering cereals as you’re being bombarded with ten fists.” The third level is to get a specific Proud Boys tattoo. But it’s the fourth and newest level that gets the most attention: get into a physical altercation for the “cause.” “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an Antifa,” McInnes explained in 2017 (Coaston, 2018). Tarrio got involved with the Proud Boys after volunteering at an event for the far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017 and became a fourth-degree Proud Boy after punching a member of Antifa in the face in June 2018 (Coaston, 2018).

Cultural Hijacking: Repurposing Uhuru

The Proud Boys’ loose organisational structure makes it hard to estimate its overall size; most experts suggest there are several thousand members, spread across the US and a handful of international chapters (McBain, 2020). Though the total number of Proud Boys members is unknown, reports estimate membership between several hundred up to 6,000 (Greenspan, 2020). For instance, the website Rewire estimates there are roughly 6,000 members (SPLC, 2021). The leader of the group estimated that the numbers are closer to 8,000, but this number is likely inflated (Kutner, 2020).

Some members of the group are high-profile. The political operative and Trump adviser, Roger Stone – whose 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice was commuted by the president – was videoed taking the Proud Boys oath. During his trial Stone testified that some Proud Boys had helped him run his social media accounts. Jason Kessler, one of the organisers of the rally in Charlottesville, was a Proud Boy. The founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, also has links to the group (McBain, 2020).

Members are known for a provocative practice called cultural hijacking, in which the symbols and language of civil rights leaders are repurposed to advance far-right narratives. The intent is not to appropriate civil rights symbolism, but to weaken the communicative power of groups from which the symbols originated. After hijacking these terms, they ascribe new labels to the groups they have hijacked them from. Civil rights activists become social justice warriors, snowflakes, or the intolerant left. Of the culturally hijacked terms, the most commonly used is Uhuru – Swahili for African solidarity. Proud Boys have repurposed Uhuru as a rallying cry, in a manner similar to the military use of Oohrah used in the US Navy (Kutner, 2020).

The Proud Boys have emerged by rejecting mainstream conservatism, which they often view as a failure (DeCook, 2018).The group is distinct from other neo-conservative movements because of their heavy and strategic use of social media, and although other factions of the alt-right are known for their digital media savvy, the Proud Boys have specifically harnessed the power of digital technologies and have used Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms for recruitment, identity reinforcement, and to highlight the visibility of members in the world (DeCook, 2018). Social media serves a function of not only organizing and recruitment, but also serves as an educational and socialization space (Jacoby & Ochs, 1995). The group uses memes specifically as a means of spreading propaganda. These memes are bite sized nuggets of political ideology and culture that are easily digestible and spread by netizens (DeCook, 2018). Thus, memes themselves are a form of political participation within larger social movements and are an important facet of identity and community building (Mina, 2018; Nagle, 2017; Shifman, 2014) and as a vehicle to express either an individual or a collective voice (Freund, 2013; Nagle, 2017; Paddock, 2015).Memes are an extension of spoken utterances through visual and digital means (DeCook, 2018).

Pepe the Frog in Proud Boys’ uniform.

Further, the use of the cartoon character Pepe (the frog) – which was co-opted by the larger alt-right as a symbol – has been used to build group identity as well (ADL, 2016). The Proud Boys depict Pepe wearing the Proud Boys’ uniform and flashing the “OK” hand symbol used by white supremacists. As with other fascist aesthetics, the Proud Boys use clothing and branding in order to cement their group membership and to make their political and ideological affiliation visibleTheir group mantra of ‘West is the Best’ is often used in their memes, their posts, and symbols of American masculinity are used in recruitment memes. The aestheticization of their political ideology goes a step further through the usage of tattoos. These tattoos symbolize not only a progression in rank into the organization and the members’ allegiance to the Proud Boys, but also function as an aesthetic quality along with the uniforms, the hashtags used to gain visibility online, and other symbols (DeCook, 2018).

However, the Proud Boys have seen their digital reach limited; the group has been banned by social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube (Wendling, 2020; Murphy, 2020). In August 2018, Twitter terminated the official account for the group, along with McInnes’ account, under its policy prohibiting violent extremist groups (Roettgers, 2018). Facebook and Instagram also banned the group and McInnes in October 2018 (CBC, 2018). That same year, in December, YouTube banned the Proud Boys founder for copyright violation (Solsman, 2018). In February 2019, Slate magazine reported that Square, Chase Paymentech, and PayPal had pulled their payment processing services from 1776.shop, an online far-right merchandise site associated with the Proud Boys (Glaser, 2019).

In light of mass deplatforming, as well as the right-wing social network Parler going dark, everyone from casual Trump supporters to far-right militants have been flocking to alternative social networks such as the encrypted messaging apps Telegram and Signal. In particular, the Proud Boys is making a substantive play at organizing on Telegram. Two major Proud Boys channels on Telegram have exploded in use by at least 69 percent and 83 percent since January 5, 2021(Dickson, 2021).

A Supremacist Alt-Right Organisation Pretending to be Alt-Lite

The Proud Boys emerged as part of the alt-right. However, its founder McInnes distanced himself from this movement in early 2017, saying the Proud Boys was “alt-light” (Marantz, 2017) despite his and the group’s overt xenophobia and racism. McInnes told the New York Times in 2003 that “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life” (Widdicombe, 2013; Grigoriadis, 2003). Nevertheless, McInnes alleged that “they (alt-right) care about the white race. We care about Western values.” This is a view that has come to be known as “civic nationalism,” as opposed to white nationalism – or “alt-light,” as opposed to alt-right (Marantz, 2017). The ADL also defines the group as part of the alt-lite (ADL, 2021), although they are routinely associated with the “alt-right.” 

McInnes’s insistence that the Proud Boys have nothing to do with the “alt-right” grew even more adamant after the violence during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. In a blog post titled “We are not alt-right” in August 2017, he alerted his group that “alt-right” members planned to “infiltrate” Proud Boys meetings and “sabotage” them (Woodhouse, 2017). The article stated that the Proud Boys did not concur with the alt-right regarding the Jewish Question and racial identity politics (Kutner, 2020). The violence in Charlottesville sharpened the divide between the “alt-right” and the “alt-light,” but it may be a distinction without a difference (Woodhouse, 2017).

Despite also denying the group’s racism, McInnes himself has ties to the racist right. He has contributed to hate sites like VDare.com and American Renaissance, both of which publish the work of white supremacists and so-called “race realists.” He even used Taki’s Magazine – a far-right publication whose contributors include Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor – to announce the founding of the Proud Boys (SPLC, 2021). The ADL says McInnes has previously posted videos of himself giving the Nazi salute, saying, “Heil Hitler,” defending Holocaust deniers, and repeatedly using racial and antisemitic slurs (Murphy, 2020).

Obviously, McInnes plays a duplicitous rhetorical game: rejecting white nationalism and the term “alt-right” while espousing some of its central tenets. In the spring of 2015, he formed a partnership with the Canadian far-right Rebel Media and launched “The Gavin McInnes Show” with Compound Media. On both platforms, he regularly chatted with right-wing guests and carved out an ideological space for frustrated young men to rally around: western culture is superior to all others, racism is a myth created by guilty white liberals, Islam is a culture of violence, and feminism “is about de-masculinizing men,” he told his audience (SPLC, 2021). 

Despite leaders claiming they disavow racism, the Proud Boys have ties to white supremacists and sometimes use nationalist rhetoric common among hate groups (Hawkins, 2021). The attempt to distance their organization from the alt-right may be an intentional, image-saving move in order to remain appealing to the larger public and to attract more members. These strategies are a way for the Proud Boys to adapt to their wider audience’s views of the organization (Bourdieu 1991). Pragmatically sidestepping the question of race, the Proud Boys make their protofascist appeal in the language of patriotic individualism: pro-America, pro-capitalism, and pro-Trump. This strategy has allowed them to gain entry into the Republican mainstream. They’re also shifting from ethnically defined nationalism to a version that purports to target outsiders based on their legal status, not the colour of their skinO’Connor hints (2021) that the Proud Boys is dangerous because it functions as a “pipeline” to even more violent ideologies. In a 2018 survey conducted by the SPLC of users on the Right Stuff forums, 15 percent of respondents mentioned McInnes as either an important influence on their political development or as useful in converting others (Miller, 2018).

Functioning similarly to a religious group, McInnes acted as the leader of the movement and a prophet of sorts for yearsThe members operate the organization under the belief that “The West is the Best,” but welcome non-white members as long as these members acknowledge that Western civilization is superior to all others (Sommer, 2017). Furthermore, their views have elements of the white genocide conspiracy theory (Walters, 2017), and some members espouse white supremacist and antisemitic ideologies and/or engage with white supremacist groups (ADL, 2021). What the Proud Boys promise is a space for “pro-Western Chauvin[ist]” men to have their views and beliefs supported, to mingle with like-minded others, and to hopefully shift the world back towards their favoured ideology (DeCook, 2018).

A Libertarian-Fascist Movement That Venerates Housewives

The Proud Boys lists among its central tenets a belief in “closed borders” and the aim of “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism” (Murphy, 2020). An introductory article in Proud Boy Magazine professes thirteen core tenets, which combine patriarchal and patriotic ideals with libertarian, anti-government rhetoric: minimal government, maximum freedom, anti-political correctness, anti-drug war, anti-masturbation, closed borders, anti-racial guilt, anti-racism, pro-free speech, pro-gun rights, glorifying the entrepreneur, venerating the housewife, and reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism (Elders, 2018). 

The combination of militaristic rhetoric, violence on behalf of sovereign authority, radically traditional gender roles, glorification of entrepreneurship, and closed-border policies situate the group within a growing libertarian-fascist movement. Despite purporting to oppose government tyranny, the Proud Boys’ values exemplify the slippage between right-libertarianism and fascism (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019), working toward what Michael Orth (1990) described as a “libertarian Utopia which combines violence, repression of women, and a dictatorial state into an all-American Utopia which emits strong fascist resonances.” Similarly, political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. (2013) argues that this contradiction is inevitable in right-wing libertarianism, and the Proud Boys adopt a libertarian “aesthetic” of freedom to promote a politics that is often authoritarian.

Moreover, negative precarity and the need to fight to prevent the perceived extinction of western culture has been a central factor in the Proud Boys’ recruitment (Kutner, 2020). Paul Elliott Johnson (2017) states that allusions to the concept of negative precarity are found in repeated images Proud Boys disseminate in their groups. “These images construct a new perception of reality based on precarity as a white, working-class American male at risk of losing his place in society amidst changing demographics and issues surrounding immigration,” according to Johnson. Members are motivated by attempts “to establish political, social, or cultural superiority as a springboard for action on behalf of social change” (Goldzwig, 1989: 208). The belief that Western culture is superior begets a belief that members of other cultures should have less freedom, power, and opportunity, which is seen simply as the natural outcome of not being part of the Western in-group. Proud Boys believe that they have entered a “soft civil war” with battle lines drawn not by ideology, but by association and identity (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

The Proud Boys’ beliefs vary from the call to “give everyone a gun” and “end welfare” to a return to traditional gender roles (Greig, 2021). They represent an unconventional strain of American right-wing extremism (ADL, 2021). Therefore,repeated warnings about the Proud Boys as a dangerous white supremacist group were issued by counterterrorist centres. In a 22-page, 2019 document published by the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC), various incidents of violence involving the Proud Boys are discussed under the heading of “White Supremacist Extremism.” CIAC described how “the Proud Boys has been active in spreading conspiracy theories regarding Covid-19 on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram,” suggesting that “a faction of elites are weaponizing the virus, and a vaccine would likely be a tool for population control and mind control” (Wilson, 2020). The FBI also lists the Proud Boys as an extremist group while Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled them a hate group (Greig, 2021).

Like other white supremacist networks, the Proud Boys believes that whites have their own culture that is superior to other cultures, are genetically superior to other peoples, and should exert dominance over others. They also adhere to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy. This conspiracy claims that whites are being eradicated by ethnic and racial minorities, including Jews and immigrants (McAleenan, 2019). Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand, and Patrick Crusius, the El Paso Walmart shooter, espoused the most radical view of the Great Replacement conspiracy, known as Accelerationism (Jones et al, 2020).

Although not outwardly a religious organization, one of the key factors of the Proud Boys’ ideology is embracing Christianity because of its association with Western civilization. The Proud Boys magazine had an article denouncing atheists, stating that “Christianity is the Western Religion.” The ideology and the use of phrases like “Deus Vult” point to the group’s religious element, as well as the fraternity-esque concepts of brotherhood. The Proud Boys is not necessarily a religious movement that is acting as a social movement, but rather one that is harnessing religion to invoke nostalgia for the past and as an element of their larger desire to impose a specific moral order (DeCook, 2018). Postings on GiveSendGo, a niche Christian fundraising website, show that at least $247,000 has been raised for at least eight members of the Proud Boys (Brittain & David, 2021).

Meanwhile, calls to “murder Antifa” and memes jokingly posting “Antifa hunting permits,” are further examples of the call for violent acts to eradicate what the group views as their political opponents. For Proud Boys and other organizations in the alt-right sphere, Antifa is the true enemy of the Christian, white ethnonationalist west because of their embrace of socialism and multiculturalism (DeCook, 2018). By positioning Antifa as the enemy, the solidification of an “out-group” strengthens the “in-group” identity (Tajfel 1978). But members’ skill at wielding irreverence, mocking political correctness, and hewing close to views espoused by mainstream conservatives has allowed the Proud Boys to camouflage their most dangerous ideologies and flourish where other groups have withered (Hawkins, 2021). The group has historically attempted to market itself towards the Republican mainstream on platforms such as Facebook by deliberately avoiding the use of overtly racist symbols (Crawford, 2020).

The Proud Boys Found A Soulmate In Donald Trump

On the night of the US presidential election on November 3, 2016, the Proud Boys gathered to await the possibility of “a cultural change” in the country. Proud Boys’ founder McInnes announced, “Tonight, we either take the country or we lose the country to the establishment” (Bazile, 2017). Attendees of the Proud Boys’ election night party repeated their mantra: “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world” (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

Two months later, in his inaugural speech, President Donald Trump contrasted the “forgotten people” with a corrupt elite. Trump’s “American people,” like the Proud Boys, were the people who “do not believe the corrupt fake news anymore.” As used by Trump, “the people” is both a rhetorical construction and an embodied metaphor found in phrasing like “the incredible patriots here today” and “the magnitude of the crowd” stretching “all the way to the monument in Washington.” For the president, size is a sign of moral virtue: “As this enormous crowd shows,” he said, “we have truth and justice on our side” (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).

US President Donald Trump gave a speech to the People of Poland at Krasinski Square in Warsaw on July 6, 2017.

The demagogue atop the Proud Boys’ political reality, their “God Emperor,” Trump utilizes a rhetoric of victimization to call on the impatient masses to reclaim their power and agency. Johnson (2017: 230) describes Trump’s demagoguery as “a toxic, paradoxically abject masculine style whose incoherence is opaque to his critics but meaningful to his adherents, for it helps them imagine themselves as victims of a political tragedy centred around the displacement of ‘real America’ from the political centre by a feminized political establishment.” Fortunately, for the “real Americans” in this political tragedy, Trump provides a solution: fight for the West (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). In his remarks in Poland, in 2017, Trump reminded the patriots “that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life”(YouTube, 2017).

The Proud Boys find symbolic identification with the West as articulated by President Trump, figured as the leader of a fight that is inevitably victorious because of the inherent superiority of the Western warrior caste. So long as patriots continue in the ritualistic sacrifice of themselves, history is converted into a promise: “The West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.” America must be made great again, and again, and again, so “that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defence.” Trump’s promise was predictably appealing to rural voters, but that the Proud Boys were catalysed by his victory to operate in the mainly metropolitan areas where they live, reflecting how truly mainstream the Proud Boys’ beliefs are. In other words, Trump did not enchant new believers in an ideology that they had never heard, but rather coherently pieced back together an identity that reproduces itself through masculine violence (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019).

As political parties have been overtaken by political tribes (Fukuyama, 2021), the Proud Boys viewed Trump’s election as a reclamation of their sovereign authority to govern by force, particularly in defence of “the West” – that spatial organization of whiteness described by Trump in Poland as “worth defending with your life” (Trump, 2017). Spellbound by demagogic rhetoric and the mythos of “the West,” the Proud Boys interpreted Trump’s election as tacit authorization to follow a pathway to self-empowerment achieved through violence (Vitolo-Haddad, 2019). As Perry stated, the seeds sowed by Trumpism have begun to bear fruit and the harvest is rather rotten. Trump openly pandered to white racial resentment in the 2016 election and was awarded the most important job in the world (Perry, 2018).

A study by Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago found that Trumpism hasn’t bred more racists in the US – but it has emboldened people with xenophobic views to feel more comfortable expressing them in public. It’s impossible to separate the growing visibility of white supremacists under the guise of the alt-right without associating it with Trumpism. Now, more candidates with white supremacist ties are emerging from the shadows to run for public office. Spencer Sunshine, who follows white nationalist movements, explained that the “ideas of the alt-right are now part of the GOP” (Strickland, 2018). In Trump, they have found empowerment, a call to mass, warlike action aimed at reinforcing a universalized white, male, heterosexual, and entrepreneurial political subject. While right-wing, &ldquo